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Proposed FTC guidelines push back at food pushers

Consumer Reports News: June 01, 2011 10:43 AM

Those appealing cartoon characters who entice children to demand sugary cereals or nag their parents to make a fast food run may not be as innocent as they may appear.

Concerns about childhood obesity have prompted the Federal Trade Commission to recently propose voluntary new guidelines that would change the way the food industry markets to children. Beyond requesting that the companies actually make their products healthier and more nutritious—or stop pitching those to impressionable children—the guidelines would also limit how food manufacturers advertise to children. These proposed guidelines include new media such as online games, social media, movie product placement, fast-food children’s meals as well as more traditional outlets like TV and print.

These guidelines were also developed by the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The guidelines suggest that food marketed to children include at least one of the following food groups: fruit, vegetable, whole grain, eggs, nuts and seeds, beans, fish, extra-lean meat or poultry. And the agency group is also seeking to reduce saturated fat, trans fat, added sugar, and sodium in children’s food products.

“The nutritional principles we’re proposing are intended to deal with the problem of childhood obesity,” said Michelle Rusk, a lawyer with the FTC who is a representative to the working group for these guidelines. “Ultimately it’s the parents’ responsibility. What we’re saying is that the advertising industry should be supporting parents’ efforts, not undermining them.”

While these proposed guidelines, which would apply to teenagers as well as younger children are voluntary, companies that choose to adopt them would have five to 10 years to comply.

Still, “I think we need to look at this as battle lines, not guidelines,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, an organization that looks at Internet marketing to children. “For the first time, the Federal government is saying, ‘these foods are healthy,’ ‘these are not’, for children.”

What Chester thinks is especially significant is the attention the FTC guidelines pay to Internet marketing.

“These guidelines are going to close the marketing loophole,” he said. “Companies are flooding the Internet with an array of highly sophisticated digital marketing tactics that are designed to drive kids to fast food restaurants and supermarket shelves. This will make cyberspace healthier.”

There are some signs that the proposed guidelines will be beneficial for both sides.

“We’re hopeful that the voluntary guidelines will work,” said Rusk. A lot of the industry has already started to up their commitments on self regulation. The public cares about this issue. What we hear from these companies is that when they’ve reformulated the products, they do well.”

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Merri Rosenberg

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