A working group of federal agencies has proposed strict, but voluntary, guidelines for the marketing of food and beverage products to children. Under the proposal, which was unveiled April 28, children would be encouraged, through advertising and marketing, to select foods that make a meaningful contribution to a healthy diet and contain limited amounts of ingredients that may adversely affect health or weight. The proposals are more limiting than steps food companies already have taken on their own, and there were concerns they were overly restrictive.
The Interagency Working Group on Food Marketing to Children (IWG) was established by Congress under the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act. The group includes representatives from the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Dept. of Agriculture and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

“The proposal seeks to advance current voluntary industry efforts by providing a template for uniform principles that could dramatically improve the nutritional quality of the foods most heavily marketed to children — and the health status of the next generation,” the group said in a fact sheet on the proposal. “The agencies recognize that the goals for industry are ambitious, and that adopting the principles will require phased implementation over a reasonable time.”

Under the proposal, all food products within categories most heavily marketed to children and teenagers younger than 18 should meet two criteria of being healthful and lacking ingredients that are unhealthful or fattening. Categories include breakfast cereals, snack foods, candy, dairy products, baked foods, carbonated beverages, fruit juice and non-carbonated beverages, prepared foods and meals, frozen and chilled desserts and restaurant foods.

To qualify as a food making a “meaningful contribution to a healthful diet” under the proposal, the food would have to contain contributions from at least one of the following food groups: fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fat-free or low-fat milk products, fish, extra-lean meat or poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds or beans.

With a few exceptions, such as the saturated fat and sodium naturally occurring in low-fat milk, foods marketed to children also would need to meet the following rules:

• Saturated fat: 1 gram or less per RACC (reference amount customarily served) and 15 percent or less of calories

• Trans fat: zero grams per RACC

• Added sugars: No more than 13 grams of added sugars per RACC

• Sodium: No more than 210 mg per serving

Achieving the changes will not be easy, the IWG acknowledged, and it set a deadline of 2016 for products marketed to children to meet the guidelines.

Beyond limiting the marketing of certain foods, the IWG said it hoped new products and reformulations would result from the plan.

The working group also said it is considering two different approaches for determining whether a food product qualifies as meaningfully contributing to a healthy diet. Under one approach, the food would need to contain at least 50%, by weight, of one of the so-called healthy foods, such as fruits or whole grains. Under a second option, “specific minimum contributions are proposed for each of the listed food groups. For individual foods, the product meets the principle if it contains the specified amount of at least one, or a proportionate combination of more than one, of the listed food groups per RACC,” the group said.

While food companies voluntarily have restricted marketing of many products to children over television in recent years, the working group’s proposals would broaden the media included to magazines, the Internet and social media.

The IWG asked for public comment on its proposals by June 13. Comments should be sent to the FTC.

The Association of National Advertisers (ANA), while indicating it was encouraged by the IWG’s stated support for self-regulation, commented, “These are 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.”

The ANA asserted the food and advertising industries have made considerable strides through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in shifting the mix of advertising to better-for-you options, pointing to research results it and the Grocery Manufacturers Association made public on April 28.

The research conducted by Georgetown Economic Services at the request of the GMA and the ANA shows the average number of food and beverage advertisements that children 2 to 11 years of age viewed on children’s programs fell 50 percent between 2004 and 2010.

“In recent years, food and beverage companies have adopted strict nutrition standards that have fundamentally changed the advertising landscape,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the GMA “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.”

When comparing advertising on children’s programming between 2004 and 2010, the GES research pointed to advertisement declines of 99 percent for cookies, 96 percent for soft drinks, nearly 100 percent for gum and mints, 68 percent for candy, nearly 100 percent for snack bars and 71 percent for all snacks. During the same span, advertisements for frozen and refrigerated pizza fell 95 percent, and advertisements for bread, pastries, waffles and pancakes declined nearly 100 percent. In contrast, advertisements for fruit and vegetable juices increased 199 percent from 2004 to 2010.

Bailey also noted in recent years, food and beverage manufacturers have changed the recipes of more than 20,000 products to reduce calories, sodium, sugar and fat.