Government to food industry: More nutrients and less junk in kids' food and advertising for kids' food (please)

Manufacturers of foods pitched most heavily to kids -- breakfast cereals, snacks, carbonated beverages and restaurant fare -- should develop and reformulate their offerings to cut salt, added sugars and saturated fat and ensure they contribute meaningfully to a child's healthy diet, a federal working group recommended on Thursday.

The food manufacturers should make those changes soon, with a target date just five years away, in 2016; they should revamp their advertising pitches and marketing messages to stress the nutritional values of their fare and shift their ad campaigns away from less healthy options; and they should do all this voluntarily (please), said the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children.

In the year 2006 alone, the food industry spent $50 million to advertise and market 10 categories of food primarily to kids, and it is no accident that many products in these categories are well known to -- and frequently demanded by -- kids who spend time watching television geared to their demographic. If the food industry chooses to follow the recommendations drafted by the working group, the following categories of food would either be reformulated or get less airtime than is currently the case: breakfast cereals, snack foods, dairy products, candy, baked goods, fruit juices, beverages, frozen desserts, prepared meals and restaurant food.

Those "preliminary proposed nutrition principles to guide industry self-regulatory efforts" were issued Thursday by a panel of experts hailing from four federal agencies that regulate and set policy on nutrition and health and food safety, production and marketing. Acting at the direction of Congress, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Commerce Department's Federal Trade Commission drafted the new principles and are seeking the public's comment.

The working group's suggestions prompted praise (and an implied threat) from the lawmaker who called for the guidelines and grousing from those who see the guidelines as a meddling edict from the "nanny state" and its "food scold" allies. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who drafted the legislative language calling for the "preliminary proposed principles," said the draft guidelines released for comment Thursday "make the healthy choice the easy choice."

"On a daily basis, kids across the country are barraged with ads for junk foods, and it is long past time that we put some limits on the advertising of these unhealthy foods," Harkin said in a statement issued Thursday. "It is now my hope that companies will voluntarily abide by [the guidelines] and work to implement them as soon as possible. Our childrens' health cannot wait."

Calling the proposals "sweeping" and "overly restrictive," Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Assn. of National Advertisers, said, "despite calling these proposals 'voluntary,' the government is clearly trying to place major pressure on the food, beverage and restaurant industries on what can and cannot be advertised."

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