WASHINGTON – Last week, the National Restaurant Association called for a complete withdrawal of proposed federal principles that would set restrictive new terms under which restaurants could market food and beverages to children under 17.

Called the "Interagency Working Group", a combined four federal agencies (the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Agriculture and Federal Trade Commission) proposed a sweeping set of "voluntary principles" to guide restaurants and other companies in marketing food and beverages to children and adolescents ages two to 17 in April.

However, NRA charges by broadly defining marketing and by setting stringent criteria for the types of foods and beverages that could be marketed to children, the principles could end up eliminating the marketing of healthful options to kids and adolescents, the NRA said in comments submitted July 14.

Even though the Interagency Working Group's guidelines are voluntary, it is concerned the principles could eventually become mandatory, the NRA said.

Members of the Working Group hold broad rulemaking authority over restaurants and could eventually decide to make their voluntary principles mandatory. Or states or localities could use the principles as a model for regulating restaurants, the association said.

The standards are "unduly strict and are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the restaurant industry," the NRA said. "The proposed standards are unworkable for the industry and for consumers. They impose impractical nutritional standards that will significantly compromise the taste and palatability that consumers demand and underestimate the technical limitations of the industry."

What’s more, the proposed definition of "marketing to children" is so broad that vast amounts of business activity could be classified as marketing to children, the NRA charged. "Marketing" is defined under the voluntary guidelines to cover 20 categories of advertising, marketing and promotional activities. The guidelines could prohibit restaurants from sponsoring such programs as literacy and scholarship initiatives, children's charities and sport and recreational leagues.

The measures could require quick-service restaurants to serve children's meals in plain bags or boxes. Placemats that appeal to children may not be allowed unless a meal met strict standards.

The working group itself admitted that a large percentage of food products currently in the marketplace would not meet the voluntary principles – and that reformulating products to meet the standards would change the products, cause technical challenges for industry and make it harder for restaurants and food companies to appeal to consumers, NRA said.

Two years ago Congress ordered the Interagency Working Group study. Lawmakers asked the federal agencies to do a study and come up with standards for marketing food to children. The Working Group's recommendations are partly a report to Congress, and partly a proposal for industry self-regulation.

NRA claimed the agencies failed to do a study as Congress ordered, and that the Working Group's recommendations are not based on sound science or even consistent with other federal nutrition policies, such as the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans or federal school-lunch standards. And there's no evidence to show that the new marketing principles will cause children and adolescents to eat healthier foods or lose weight.