Proposed standards scaled back for food marketing aimed at children

The American Academy of Pediatrics supports the Obama administration's original proposal calling for healthier food to be pitched to youths age 2 to 17.

By — Posted Oct. 24, 2011

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House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans railed against an Obama administration proposal that calls on the food industry to voluntarily improve the nutritional value of food marketed to children, even as the administration and the food industry edged closer to a compromise.

The federal principles suggest standards by which food marketed to children younger than 12 could be judged as healthful. The proposal would set limits on the amounts of sodium, added sugars and other nutrients "that do not provide a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet." They also would set minimum amounts of healthier ingredients, including fruits, vegetables, lean meat and low-fat milk products, and would call on the food industry to adopt the standards by 2016.

Two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees convened a joint hearing on Oct. 12 on the children's food marketing principles, which were developed by an interagency working group of the Federal Trade Commission, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

The effort began after the fiscal 2009 omnibus spending act called on the agencies to develop nutritional standards for food marketed to children 17 and younger. The report was to be delivered by July 15, 2010, but a draft was not finished until April because the agencies sought public and industry comments. The agencies received more than 29,000 comments, including 28,000 from write-in campaigns in support of the proposal. An additional 100 comments substantively discussed the principles and were evenly divided for and against the proposal, David C. Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, told the subcommittees.

In response, the agencies exempted from the principles food marketing for children ages 12-17 and marketing through charitable activities and entertainment and sports events. The principles will not recommend changes to food packaging elements tied to the food's brand identity.

"We realized that perhaps we were too ambitious," Vladeck said. Much of the marketing to teenagers is difficult to distinguish from marketing to an adult audience, he added.

The American Academy of Pediatrics supported the stronger version of the proposal and would prefer the agencies to make the guidelines mandatory, according to a Sept. 30 letter to the four agency directors by AAP President O. Marion Burton, MD. "Requiring that only nutritious foods are marketed to children and adolescents will lead to a healthier population and a positive long-term public health impact," he wrote.

However, Vladeck said the agencies' goal is to strengthen self-regulatory efforts. "Regulating in this kind of area might raise First Amendment issues," he said.

Meeting nutrition requirements

Republican subcommittee members said the principles are confusing, would be ineffective and would lead to job layoffs. Members such as Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R, Tenn.) said the government cannot replace parents' judgment and authority, and they questioned whether common meals would meet the nutrition requirements. Vladeck said that none of the 29,000 comments about the principles suggested they would result in lost jobs.

Others, such as Rep. Joe Barton (R, Texas), took blame for being part of the American obesity epidemic. Barton said he weighs 215 pounds -- about 50 pounds more than when he arrived in Congress in 1984. He says that's partly because he eats at fast-food restaurants and often not at home.

"If I'm really trying to be healthy, I'll stop at Subway," Barton said. Federal guidelines are not going to change behavior and get parents to feed their children healthier meals, he said. "You can't regulate that. You can't mandate that."

Most Democrats, such as Rep. Henry Waxman (D, Calif.), defended the guidelines. "It's a way not to have our kids subjected to advertising that they don't know how to deal with it. They're kids," he said. A third of children in America are overweight or obese, Waxman said.

In 2006, the food industry spent more than $1.6 billion to market food to children, according to the FTC. "We rarely see children having tantrums in the produce aisles pleading for Mom or Dad to load up the shopping cart with broccoli or Brussels sprouts," Vladeck said.

A food industry group -- the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative -- reacted to the principles in July by pledging to strengthen voluntary standards for marketing of food to children by Dec. 31, 2013. The group offered to end food marketing to children younger than 6 and suggested nutrition criteria for 10 product categories instead of the one-sized standards suggested by the agencies. The group's 17 members are large food companies such as McDonalds, Coca Cola, Kraft Foods, General Mills and Hershey. A third of their products do not meet the industry criteria.

The industry group's guidelines "appear to be a step forward," said Robert Post, PhD, deputy director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion at the Dept. of Agriculture. However, he said the industry could further strengthen its standards.

American Medical Association policy encourages fast-food restaurants to implement competitive pricing between less healthy and more healthy food choices in children's meals. AMA policy also supports the food industry's use of marketing to encourage healthy childhood behaviors.

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Food marketing standards

Four federal agencies have agreed to scale back their proposed voluntary nutritional guidelines for food marketed to children. The revised standards would not apply to all children nor all types of marketing. The proposal would:

  • Suggest that the food industry, through voluntary efforts, significantly improve the nutritional value of foods marketed to children by 2016.
  • Call for standards that would set ceilings for the amount of saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars and sodium, and minimum amounts for fruit, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk products, fish, extra lean meat, beans, eggs, nuts and seeds, among others.
  • Apply to children from age 2 to 11.
  • Not apply to children age 12 to 17.
  • Apply to food marketing in traditional media, such as television, print publications and radio; digital and social marketing; advertisements or product placements in movies and video games; and certain sweepstakes, cross-promotions and premiums.
  • Not apply to marketing through charitable activities, entertainment and sporting events, or directed at families and widely at communities.
  • Apply to individual foods, main dishes and meals.

Source: House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee; Subcommitte on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade

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