Some of the nation’s largest food and beverage companies proposed new self-imposed regulations Thursday to drastically restrict the kinds of products they advertise and market toward children.
The uniform nutrition criteria comes after a handful of federal agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission, were directed by Congress to establish guidelines for such advertising.
The industry plan targets a number of food types, including juices, dairy products, grains, soups and meals. It holds companies to limits on the amount of calories, sugar, sodium and saturated fat allowed in foods promoted to children.
The regulations will give the companies time to make adjustments. As it stands, the recipes of about one-third of all food and beverages marketed toward children would have to change, or the companies will not be able to advertise those products after Dec. 31, 2013.
The self-regulation effort involves a number of the largest food and beverage producers in the U.S., including Kraft, Kellogg and Nestle, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.
Industry officials applauded the effort as a compromise with government, which in April proposed guidelines that some industry officials worried would eliminate virtually all food advertising directed toward anyone under the age of 18. Under the government’s proposal, for example, a bowl of Banana Nut Cheerios would not make the cut because of an excess of sugar.
“The numbers, the limits and the maximums they were setting … weren’t really going to work,” said Elaine Kolish, vice president and director of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a coalition of 17 food and beverage companies which released the nutritional regulations. “We think our proposal is a really good roadmap to leading to further improvements in foods.”
Although the new standards are not as stringent as the government’s recommended guidelines, FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz hailed the effort as an important step forward.
“The industry’s uniform standards are a significant advance, and are exactly the type of initiative the Commission had in mind when we started pushing for self-regulation more than five years ago,” Leibowitz said in a statement. “The Interagency Working Group should carefully consider this, as well as other stakeholder comments, as we develop the final recommendations required by Congress.
The government is trying to cut a child obesity rate that’s almost tripled in the past three decades to 17 percent, or 12.5 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Our agency is committed to playing a role in reducing childhood obesity – and doing it in a pragmatic, non-regulatory way – and we applaud industry for making healthy progress.”
One expert was skeptical, however. Dale Kunkel, professor of communication at the University of Arizona, said that despite past efforts to self-regulate, 72.5% of the foods in television advertisements directed at children rank in the poorest nutritional category.
Industry officials are “claiming that they know better than the nation’s leading nutritional and public health experts about what’s appropriate,” he said. “This would be like asking the public to have speed limits set by the auto industry – the car manufacturers rather than the government.”
Kunkel noted that some child advocates think self-regulation is the only realistic goal. Ultimately, however, “the shortcomings to self-regulation will be demonstrated,” he said.