Citing the goal of reducing childhood obesity, an interagency working group (IWG) comprising four federal agencies has released a set of proposed voluntary guidelines for the nutritional content of foods and beverages marketed to children and teens ages 2 through 17.
In 2009, Congress directed the Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to form an IWG to develop such recommendations.
The proposed voluntary guidelines recommend that food makers adhere to specific limitations on saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars and sodium in foods marketed to children. At the same time, they recommend that companies use advertising and marketing to "encourage children to choose foods that make meaningful contributions to a healthful diet from food groups including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk products, fish, extra-lean meat and poultry, eggs, nuts or seeds, and beans."
The proposal calls for food marketers, including restaurants, to "strive" to meet specified initial/interim nutritional and marketing criteria by 2016, and final targets by 2021. The proposal identifies 10 food/beverage categories that account for the vast majority of spending for marketing to children and teens, and recommends that the industry focus on these. Those categories are breakfast cereals, snack foods, dairy products, baked goods, carbonated and non-carbonated beverages, prepared foods/meals, frozen and chilled desserts, and restaurant foods.
Specific nutritional guidelines for the amounts of "healthful" nutrients products in each of these groups (full proposal PDF download), as well as the recommended limits on "negative" nutrients, are laid out.
The proposal calls for companies, by 2016, to meet the following limits on "negative nutrients" per RACC (federally determined "reference amount customarily consumed" which is not necessarily the same as "serving size"): saturated fat at 1 gram or less and representing 15% or less of calories; zero trans fat; no more than 13 grams of added sugars; and no more than 210 milligrams of sodium.
To define what "marketing to children" encompasses, the proposal uses 20 categories of advertising, marketing and promotional activities identified by the FTC in its 2006 and follow-up studies on food marketing to children.
Interested parties now have 45 days to comment on the proposal (including during a forum on May 24 in Washington, D.C.) before the group submits its final report to Congress.
The IWG's summary states that the proposal "seeks to advance current industry efforts" in regard to the nutritional value of foods marketed to children." However, it stresses statistics including: one-third of American children are overweight or obese; cookies, cakes, pizza, and soda/energy/sports drinks are the top sources of calories in the diets of children 2 to 18; and chips and French fries comprise half of all the vegetables eaten by children.
"The food industry spent more than $1.6 billion in 2006 alone to market messages to kids promoting foods that often are high in calories and low in nutrition," the report states. "Their campaigns use television, the Internet, social media. video games, movies, sports and music events, in-store displays and packaging and even schools." It also states that recent surveys show childhood obesity as being parents' #1 health concern about their children, and that parents consider "TV ads promoting junk food" to be a big part of the problem.
Nutrition advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest has long maintained that efforts of individual food makers and the 17 companies voluntarily participating in the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Children's Food and Beverage Initiative (launched in 2005) are not producing enough improvement. CSPI cites, for example, its research showing that ads for foods of "poor nutritional quality" on Nickelodeon decreased only from 88% to 79% of food ads between 2005 and 2009.
"A key weakness of the current self-regulatory approach...is that each company has its own strategically tailored standards," and that many have "loopholes," Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at CSPI, said in a statement following the proposal's release "If companies are serious about addressing marketing to children, they'll agree to follow the proposed national marketing standards."
Industry Groups Respond
Timed to coincide with the proposal's release, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Association of National Advertisers released results of new research conducted for the associations by Georgetown Economic Services. This study shows that the average number of food/beverage ads viewed on children's programming by children 2 to 11 fell by 50% between 2004 and 2010.
"In recent years, food and beverage companies have adopted strict nutrition standards that have fundamentally changed the advertising landscape," stated GMA president/CEO Pamela G. Bailey. "Since 2005, there has been a significant decrease in overall food and beverage advertising on children's programs, coupled with a dramatic increase in ads featuring healthier product choices and healthy lifestyle messages."
This research shows that kids' show ads for a number of product categories decreased by large percentages over the six-year period: cookies (ads down 99%), soft drinks (down 96%), candy (down 68%), and frozen/refrigerated pizza (down 95%). Ads for breads/ pastries/ waffles/pancakes, gum/mints and snack bars fell by nearly 100%, according to the study. Ads for fruit and vegetable juices have increased by 199%.
The release stresses that food and beverage makers have in recent years changed the recipes of more than 20,000 products (all products, not just those marketed primarily to children) to reduce calories, sodium, sugar and fat, and that the industry is now implementing its own front-of-package nutritional labeling system.
In a separate release, ANA EVP, government relations Dan Jaffe termed the agencies' recommendations "sweeping and in our view overly restrictive proposals which become dramatically more restrictive after a five-year phase-in period."
"Despite calling these proposals 'voluntary,' the government clearly is trying to place major pressure on the food, beverage and restaurant industries on what can and cannot be advertised," Jaffe stressed.
The IWG's focus on the 10 product categories is based on "limited and outdated" ad spending data from 2006, Jaffe pointed out, citing the data from the just-released Georgetown study for GMA and ANA. He also questioned the group's logic in stating that it is considering "a more narrowly defined, yet still restrictive, set of guidelines geared toward adolescents covering various forms of new media."
However, Jaffe added that ANA is "encouraged by [the IWG's] support for self-regulation."
In addition to food makers' nutritional and advertising efforts, he noted that The Ad Council is working with First Lady Michelle Obama on her "Let's Move" initiative and with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on its "Small Step" program. Media companies have donated nearly a half-billion dollars in public service advertising time and space to these programs, he reported.