WASHINGTON — The Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, which is a group of representatives from the Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, on Dec. 15 proposed tentative nutrition standards for food marketed to children.
The voluntary guidelines would cover food marketed to children up to the age of 17 and place restrictions on products that contain significant amounts of sugar, sodium and saturated fat. Among the proposals: advertised foods must not contain more than 1 gram of saturated fat per serving and not more than 15% of calories; no more than 13 grams of added sugar; no more than 200 mg of sodium (this level would be interim and over time should be reduced to 140 mg); and must be trans fat free.
The proposed nutrition standards are expected to be published in the Federal Register in January, at which point they will be open for comment with possible implementation by the summer of 2010.
The proposed standards came to the fore as part of the "Sizing Up Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity" day-long forum sponsored by the F.T.C. on Dec. 15. The event featured panel discussion on research into how various food advertising techniques impact children’s food choices, as well as a panel discussion on the legal ramifications of restricting advertising to children. The forum also included a look at federal agencies’ recommended nutritional standards for foods marketed to children.
In opening remarks at the forum, Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the F.T.C., applauded the 16 companies that have signed Council of Better Business Bureaus pledges as well as those that have taken action on their own, but highlighted Yum! Brands, Chuck E. Cheese and IHOP for their lack of initiative in adhering to meaningful nutrition-based standards for foods marketed to children.
Mr. Leibowitz also said companies must close the nutrition loopholes that allow foods of questionable nutritional value to be marketed to children, and urged the entertainment industry to play a constructive role in filtering the foods that are advertised on children’s programming, especially on children’s cable networks.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said now is the time to act, pointing to the growth of web sites and games that are just as effective as television in reaching children.
"No matter what standards we create, we’re probably not going to stop kids from liking Cheetos," Ms. Sebelius said. "But if a kid gets diabetes when he’s 18 partly because when he was younger he only ate the foods he saw everyday on TV and the Internet, that’s not his fault. It’s our fault. So we need to start doing a better job regulating the type of ads our kids see. That’s what these new standards will do, and we welcome input from all of you as we try to get them right."
Representatives of several groups told forum participants self-regulation is working.
Mary Sophos, senior vice-president and chief government affairs officer for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said children are seeing fewer food, beverage and restaurant advertisements and credited G.M.A. members with taking voluntary steps to promote healthier products.
She said that since 1994, there has been a 27% decrease in food, beverage and restaurant television advertisements seen by the average child, with more than half of that decrease coming in the past four years.
"The food and beverage industry is fully committed to continue working with policymakers, non-governmental organizations, parents, schools, consumer groups, advertisers and other stakeholders to support and encourage healthy lifestyle choices by all Americans," Ms. Sophos said. "Our efforts are having an impact, and we will continue to do our part."
Elaine Kolish, director of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, added that since the creation of her group’s initiative in 2006, the sugar content of cereals advertised to children has been cut to 11 grams of sugar or less from 16 grams previously, while the sodium content of many soups and canned pastas has been reduced by 20% and 30%.
"The bottom line is that industry self regulation is working and, because of the initiative, substantial advances have been achieved in improving the nutrient content of foods and beverages advertised to kids," Ms. Kolish said.