A federal interagency work group is seeking industry and public comment on proposed food marketing guidelines which would limit the ways in which sugar, fat and salt-laden food is advertised to children.
The preliminary version of the voluntary restrictions came at the request of congressional leaders in 2009, who urged federal regulators to recommend standards for advertising food to children in an attempt to reverse federal health agency estimates that 32 percent of the nation’s children are either overweight or obese. .
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) leads the work group, which includes representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture.
The far-reaching guidelines were posted to the FTC’s Web site on April 28. The commenting period will last for 45 days, but opposition is already surfacing among the advertising and food industry.
Dan Jaffe, the Association of National Advertisers’ executive vice president for government relations, called the recommendations “overly restrictive.”
“The…report is based on limited and outdated information. Data that the industry has more recently analyzed shows food and beverage advertising directed to children on a significant downward trend,” he said in a statement.
Jaffe pointed to a 2010 report his organization conducted in conjunction with a grocery manufacturers association which found that the number of food and drink advertisements directed at young children have declined by more than 50 percent since 2004.
The workgroup’s guidelines call for a limit on foods with high concentrations of sodium, saturated fat, trans fat and added sugars. It also pushes for menus to contain a significant amount—the proposal suggested 50 percent of the food’s weight—of nutrients from at least one of the healthy food groups, which include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, fat-free or low-fat milk products, eggs, nuts and seeds. Main dishes and full meals should contribute “meaningful” contributions from at least two or three of the healthy food groups, respectively.
Under the plan, all foods heavily marketed to children must meet these principals by 2016.
An FTC in 2008 study found that 70 percent of all food marketed to children under 12 were snack, breakfast cereal and restaurant foods. Adolescents aged 12-17 years were most likely to be targeted for carbonated beverages, non-carbonated beverages and restaurant foods.
The FTC said the recommendations would not be legally binding. But Jaffe said the “overly rigid” rules show “the government clearly is trying to place major pressure on the food, beverage and restaurant industries on what can and cannot be advertised.”
However, some health care advocates applauded the suggestions.
“A key weakness of the current self-regulatory approach to food marketing to children is that each company has its own strategically tailored standards,” Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement. “While overall the standards look fairly similar, many have loopholes, like weak or no sodium standards for fast-food companies and weak sugar standards for cereal marketers.”