The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) forum, ‘Sizing up Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity’, took place in Washington on Tuesday, at a time when food manufacturers have been facing increasing pressure over the kinds of foods they advertise during children’s television programming.
The proposals, drawn up as a result of a Congress request in March, involve only marketing foods and drinks to children if they provide a "meaningful contribution to a healthful diet," and suggest restricting advertising of foods that are considered high in saturated fat, sugar or salt.
Although the proposals are voluntary, if they are enacted it would be the first time that the US government has involved itself in how foods are marketed to all under-18s – a sticking point for some members of industry, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). A GMA spokesperson said in March that government involvement in advertising standards for all under-18s “goes far beyond marketing to children. Too far.”
On Tuesday, the GMA’s senior vice president and chief government affairs officer Mary Sophos said that children now see fewer commercials for unhealthy foods and drinks.
“We are continuing to provide a wider range of nutritious product choices and marketing these choices in responsible ways that promote healthy lifestyles,” she said.
Many industry members – including the GMA – have argued that in the face of consumer and public policy group demands, self-regulation is effective to ensure responsible advertising to children.
Director of the FTC’s consumer protection bureau David Vladeck emphasized that the proposals would be voluntary, but added that industry would need to take the lead on adopting more responsible advertising practices to avoid further involvement from Congress.
The proposed standards are due to be published in the Federal Register in January, where they will be open for public comment. They are then expected to be finalized in a report to Congress in July.
Congress requested that the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children was formed on the back of a growing body of research into the effects of advertising unhealthy foods to children and young people, and in response to rising levels of childhood obesity in the US.
CSPI Nutrition Policy Director Margo G. Wootan welcomed the working group’s proposals, and said in a statement: “Food marketers…should adopt these standards on a voluntary basis. Rather than trying to weaken these standards, I hope that the industry sees the Interagency Working Group’s recommendations as a wake-up call, and soon phases out the discredited practice of marketing junk food to kids altogether.”
Part of the industry’s self-regulatory approach has involved the introduction of a number of initiatives, such as the Council for Better Business Bureau’s Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative which was set up in late 2006 and involves 15 major manufacturers; and the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s (GMA) Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, involving 40 manufacturers, retailers and NGOs, set up in October. The GMA says its initiative aims to help reduce obesity – especially childhood obesity – by 2015.
The working group’s formation was announced alongside the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Bill in March and consists of members from the Federal Trade Commission, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture.