Food industry decries tighter rules on marketing to kids

Chelsea Whyte Contributor
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The bottom rows of grocery store aisles, usually reserved for brightly packaged foods set right at children’s eye level, may be in for a makeover — and it’s what is inside the boxes that could be changing.

New recommendations from government agencies would require that foods marketed directly to children between the ages of two and 17 contribute to healthy diets.

“We believe that food and beverage companies should market responsibly to kids,” said Susan Davison, director of corporate affairs for Kraft Foods Inc. “But we think the Interagency Working Group proposal is too restrictive. In fact, it’s so restrictive that foods like reduced fat peanut butter or two percent milk string cheese could not be advertised to children.”

The government proposal would require that foods marketed to children and teens come from one of the following food groups: fruit, vegetable, whole grain, fat-free or low-fat milk products, fish, extra lean meat or poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds, or beans. They must also contain no more than trace amounts of saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars and sodium.

“Childhood obesity is the nation’s most serious health threat,” states the proposal from the congressionally-mandated work group, which includes the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United States Department of Agriculture.

With one in three children overweight in America, that statement isn’t an exaggeration. Obese children are also at greater risk for developing diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and other diseases.

The proposed restrictions make foods already considered healthy under current FDA guidelines inappropriate to market to kids younger than 18. Of the 100 most-consumed products in the country, 88 would have to be reformulated to meet these criteria or simply go unadvertised.

It’s not just in-store marketing that’s on the chopping block. Television, radio, online and print advertising, along with product placement in movies and video games, celebrity endorsements and athlete sponsorships are all types of marketing that would be eliminated. (RELATED: Potty training classes are changing)

“This is a dramatic expansion that would impact at least 1,700 programs on both broadcast and cable,” said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president for government relations at the Association of National Advertisers. The government’s definition of marketing even includes word-of-mouth marketing. “That means Girl Scout Cookies.”

While the proposal calls these restrictions voluntary guidelines, choosing not to comply puts the food industry in a tough position.

“These are public companies,” Jaffe said. “If the four agencies with the greatest amount of regulatory power over them come out and say in a report to Congress that the healthy way to advertise to kids is not have any of these products shown to them, that’s going to be hard to ignore.”

Jaffe said he has never seen the food, beverage, restaurant and advertising community so incensed, and called the “radical” proposal an unreasonable burden.

A recently released study, commissioned by the Sensible Food Policy Coalition, found that adoption of these limitations could lead to a decrease in total sales of $28.3 billion and a loss of 74,000 jobs across the food and beverage industry, including advertisers, suppliers, and manufacturers.

Seventeen of the nation’s largest food companies, including Kellogg Co., General Mills Inc., and Kraft, have created their own set of guidelines.

Not surprisingly, the restrictions proposed by the food industry are less severe than those put forth by the government, which requires the same restrictions in all foods.

The industry plan differs in an important way. Foods that require higher amounts of the sodium for taste or preservation get exclusions. For example, soups are allowed higher sodium levels (still within the FDA’s healthy sodium levels) to account for taste, and processed meats are given leeway in the sodium category because it helps keep them from falling apart.

“I thought [the government’s proposal] was unworkable and unrealistic,” said Elaine Kolish, vice president of the food industry initiative. “They vastly underestimated the difficulty of implementing this, both from a food science and from a consumer acceptance point of view.”

The food industry’s proposal takes the historically accepted view that children are individuals under age 12.

“We’ve always focused on children under 12,” Kolish said. “Teens can drive, hold jobs, pay taxes, and even get married in some states. The notion that they couldn’t see an ad for a French fry or chocolate chip cookie didn’t make sense to us.”

The food industry submitted its proposal to the government agencies during the open comment period. “We had the benefit of working with top level scientists and nutrition professionals. The agencies didn’t,” Kolish said.

The government appears to be listening. The industry plan received a positive response from FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

Even under their own guidelines, member companies will have to reformulate one in three foods currently advertised to kids to meet the first-ever standards that reach across the industry.

“This means that everything from juice drinks, to pasta, to cereals will have to meet the same criteria regardless of which member company makes it,” Kraft’s Davison said. “Ultimately, this will lead to healthier foods advertised to kids.”

The food industry has agreed to voluntarily implement its criteria by December 2013. The government’s proposed rollout is 2016. Kolish said the self-imposed guidelines are so much more realistic that the food companies were willing to agree to the shorter timeline.