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Feds Crack Down on Kids' Junk Food Marketing. The Catch? It's All Voluntary

The government's long-awaited nutrition standards for what foods can be marketing to kids are so stringent and expansive that it would decimate food marketing as we know it. Hardly any of the items currently sold to kids would qualify. Not Capri Sun, not Lunchables, not Happy Meals, not Chef Boyardee. And certainly not Cap'n Crunch, Froot Loops or Frosted Flakes.

The catch? The standards are purely voluntary. The FTC, which regulates advertising and spearheaded the effort, doesn't have any actual legal authority to regulate food advertising based on nutrition. But food companies are going to face considerable public and competitive pressure to make themselves look responsible by adopting the government's new rules.

The publishing of these guidelines, which were originally due last July, marks an unusual willingness by the government to adopt a combative -- dare we say regulatory -- stance against the food industry, which needless to say, is not happy about the rules. When the standards were originally drafted almost a year and a half ago, many observers, including myself, predicted they would get watered down with a fire hose. But that didn't happen.

The rules are almost exactly the same. Citing the urgent and tragic public health problem of childhood obesity, the government is requiring that food sold to kids not only have a minimal amount of the bad stuff -- sugar, trans fat, saturated fat and sodium -- but that it also have more good stuff, ie. real food. That means some "meaningful contribution," perhaps 50% of a product's total weight, of the following:

  • fruit
  • vegetable
  • whole grain
  • fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk products
  • fish
  • extra lean meat or poultry
  • eggs
  • nuts and seeds
  • beans
And that's not all. "Marketing" is defined in the broadest terms possible to include the huge assortment of methods companies use to appeal to kids, everything from company web sites and email and text messaging to product placement in movies, use of licensed characters on packaging and sponsorship of events and sports teams.

The food industry has argued that it's already doing a good job self-regulating itself, yesterday (coincidence!) publicizing the results of a study funded by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Association of National Advertisers and conducted by Georgetown Economic Services showing that the average number of food and beverage ads that kids aged 2 to 11 viewed on children's TV programming fell by 50% between 2004 and 2010.

But while TV ads are down, there's evidence showing that other forms of marketing are up. And a study done last year by the Prevention Institute revealed huge loopholes in the industry's definition of "healthy" foods that can be marketed to kids.

Thus the need for government action. The interagency working group, which includes the FTC, FDA, CDC and USDA, did decide to show some leniency, giving food companies five years to reformulate their products to meet the standards. The government seems to think the industry will move heaven and earth to remake their products before giving up on marketing to kids altogether.

The working group also left the door open to some compromises. The guidelines concede:

Making substantial changes to the formulation of a food product may present both technical difficulties and challenges in maintaining the palatability and consumer acceptance of the product. Certain elements of the proposed nutrition principles may need to be adjusted to reflect these challenges.
Of course, Plan B for food manufacturers is to do nothing at all. Food activist and public health lawyer Michele Simon reported that, at an obesity meeting in Brussels in March, Mary Engle, director of the FTC's Division of Advertising Practices, said the FTC had heard from critics warning that industry would just ignore the standards.

Image by Flickr user Scorpions and Centaurs

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