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Government Agencies Propose Tough Kids/Teens Food Marketing Self-Regs

Food marketers and media are being asked to market only healthy, or at least healthier foods, to kids and teens.

 An interagency government advisory group has recommended new tough but voluntary food marketing guidelines to kids and teens and the Federal Trade Commission has put them out for comment.

Those would include requiring foods marketed to kids to contain at least one of a list of healthy ingredients--fruit, vegetable, whole grain, nuts, seeds--and contain limited amounts of nutrients "with negative impact on health or weight--including limits on saturated fats, trans fat, added sugars and sodium.

The goal is to have all food marketed to kids meeting that standard by 2016. The foods it is targeting for alterations include "breakfast cereals; snack foods; candy; dairy products; baked goods; carbonated beverages; fruit juice and non-carbonated beverages; prepared foods and meals; frozen and chilled deserts; and restaurant foods."

The FTC concedes that the goals "are ambitious and would take time to put into place, the public health stakes could not be higher.' Driving the guidelines is the epidemic in childhood obesity, an issue that First Lady Michelle has made a priority and which implicates healthcare costs to the tune of billions of dollars.

The Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (Working Group), comprising representatives from the FTC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the FDA, and the USDA is recommending "enhanced" self-regulation and made the point that its recommendations are neither proposed government regulations or a call for regulation.

"They are an opportunity for food and beverage manufacturers, public health advocates, the entertainment industry, academics, and other stakeholders to provide comments that will inform the working group's final recommendations to Congress," said the FTC.

The recommendations are the result of a 2009 congressional request for the agencies to get together to come up with principles to guide food marketers and media in their marketing of food to kids and teens 2-17 and "to tap into the power of advertising and marketing to support healthful food choices."

Those marketers have already taken steps to limit marketing of snack foods to kids via their Children's Advertising Food and Beverage Initiative, though that is targeted to kids 12 and under rather than older teens.

Those are companies that pledge not to advertise their products to kids under 12 unless the products meet nutritional guidelines. The guidelines are based on a variety of sources including the FDA and World Health Organization.

"To their credit, some of the leading companies are already reformulating products and rethinking marketing strategies to promote healthier foods to kids," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz in announcing the proposed guidelines. "But we all have more work to do before we can tip the scales to a healthier generation of children. This proposal encourages all food marketers to expand voluntary efforts to reduce kids' waistlines."

Jeff McIntyre, national policy director for Children Now, which has pushed for tougher kids marketing standards, was cautiously optimistic. "While Children Now is pleased that the Interagency Task Force has finally released the proposed uniform standard for marketing food to children, we remain concerned that the food and beverage industry and the media industry will not sufficiently comply," he said in a statement.

"With the current generation of American children predicted to have a shorter lifespan than their parents due to obesity related concerns, our nation must take aggressive action now to address this epidemic."

 Adonis Hoffman, former general counsel of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, calls the guidelines a good beginning. But he says it should be the floor, not the ceiling, for responsible food marketing to kids.

"At the end of the day, it would be great if food companies and advertisers were more concerned about healthy public policy than healthy profits, but that is not the world in which we live," he told B&C. "That's why government has to play a little tougher than it has in this arena just to get us to a balanced outcome....These long-awaited guidelines come right on time, as the momentum for change by some companies had begun to subside as had scrutiny from the Hill. The good news is that they establish a standard for responsible marketing practices."

But he has issues with the expanded age range. "[E]xtending this to 17 year olds seems to be an over-reach. The age of 12 is a good place to stop."

Hoffman is currently adjunct professor of marketing, advertising & public policy at Georgetown University.