Lawmakers have requested a cost-benefit analysis of proposed voluntary guidelines for restricting foods marketed to children, as part of a congressional spending bill.
The spending bill specifies that unless a cost-benefit analysis is undertaken, “None of the funds made available in this Act may be used by the Federal Trade Commission to complete the draft report entitled "Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children: Preliminary Proposed Nutrition Principles to Guide Industry Self-Regulatory Efforts"”.
The draft report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was issued in April this year, proposing voluntary nutritional guidelines for products marketed to children aged 2-17. In October, the FTC softened some of its proposals on the back of industry concerns, including restricting the proposed nutritional standards to foods marketed to children aged 2-11 only.
The guidelines are intended to tackle childhood obesity and improve children’s health by setting standards for foods advertised to children, including reducing saturated fat, added sugars and sodium and providing a “meaningful contribution to a healthful diet” by including specific foods and/or nutrients.
However, critics argue that a cost-benefit analysis does not make sense considering that the guidelines are voluntary.
Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest Margo Wootan said in a statement: “This delaying tactic puts kids’ health at risk. Doing a cost-benefit analysis makes sense for regulations that require companies to actually do something. But there is no cost associated with something that is totally voluntary.”
The guidelines have received strong criticism from industry. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) has argued that they are not actually voluntary, as failure to comply would risk the introduction of harsher regulations, class action lawsuits, and reputational consequences for food companies.
The GMA has called for the proposed guidelines to be withdrawn, and claims that they are not in line with federal nutritional recommendations, such as the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which set intake goals for separate age groups.
According to a recent report from the Sunlight Foundation, major food and beverage companies spent about $37m lobbying government during 2011, including over the proposed guidelines on marketing to children.
Industry initiative progress
Meanwhile, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) has reported ‘excellent compliance’ from its members – 17 food and beverage companies that together represent about three-quarters of all food advertised to children in the United States.
Director of CFBAI Elaine Kolish said: “The companies that participate in the CFBAI have made major changes in their business practices since the program was launched. Under self-regulation, they’ve significantly improved the products in child-directed ads in both traditional and new media, none are advertising to kids in elementary schools, and none are doing product placement in child-directed entertainment or editorial content.”
The initiative was set up in 2006, as part of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, with the stated aim of shifting “the mix of advertising messaging directed at children to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthier lifestyles”.