New Federal Guidelines Regulate Junk Food Ads for Kids

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The Federal Trade Commission has finally released rules about how foods can (and can't) be marketed to children—but some questions remain

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The FTC released its long-awaited principles for food marketing to children yesterday. These are proposed principles, scheduled to apply to marketing to children ages two to 17, to go into effect by 2016. The principles are now open for comment.

Principle A: Foods marketed to children must make a meaningful contribution to healthful diets, and contain at least one of these food groups:
  • fruit
  • vegetable
  • whole grain
  • fat-free or low-fat (1-percent) milk products
  • fish
  • extra lean meat or poultry
  • eggs
  • nuts and seeds
  • beans
Principle B is that the foods should minimize intake of nutrients that could have a negative impact on health or weight.  The key standards are:
  • Saturated Fat: 1 g or less per serving and 15 percent or less of calories
  • Trans Fat: 0 g per serving
  • Added Sugars: No more than 13 g of added sugars per serving
  • Sodium: No more than 210 mg per serving
I thought the original proposals were far too generous. But the only difference between these proposals and those proposed a year or so ago is a slight increase in sodium from 200 mg to 210 mg per serving. I can only assume that this difference is just enough to include a lot of junk foods that would otherwise be excluded by these principles.

Recall the history: In 2009, Congress specified that an interagency group was to set up standards for identifying foods that should not be marketed to children and to publish them by July 15, 2010. That group came up with a set of recommendations similar to these but more complicated.

The July 15 date came and went, as I explained in a previous post. Why? Rumors were that food industry opposition got in the way. As reporter Melanie Warner pointed out, weak as they may appear, the proposed standards would exclude a great many highly profitable food products. William Neuman provided a detailed account of why the FTC wasn't budging on this in The New York Times. And the Colbert Report had some fun with the FTC's delay. The food industry has consistently opposed giving the FTC more authority over marketing of foods and supplements.

What are we to make of this? In the light of this history, the FTC must be congratulated for its courage in overcoming food industry opposition. The principles are supposed to apply to all forms of media, print and electronic. If so, the food industry will have a much harder time marketing foods to kids. That's great news.

But here's what I'm still concerned about:
  • The principles are voluntary. Nobody has to follow them.
  • Who is going to hold food companies accountable for following the guidelines?
  • Why do food companies get until 2016 to implement them?  Five years?
Can't we do any better? Of course, given my druthers, food companies would not be allowed to market directly to children at all.

Image: Greencolander/flickr

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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