The "extraordinarily far-reaching" proposals were published last month by an interagency working group (IWG) representing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and have caused a storm of controversy.
The proposals would require firms to stop marketing foods high in sodium, saturated fats, trans fat and added sugars to children, and actively to promote only products containing certain beneficial nutrients, and are based on nutrition principles critics argue "have no scientific basis".
In practice, they would prevent the industry from marketing a raft of healthy foods to kids, including “most yogurts, soups, vegetable juices and many cereals”, chiefly owing to the "draconian" thresholds on added sugars and sodium, claimed Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) vice president for federal affairs Scott Faber.
Ultra-low sodium targets
Indeed, the IWG itself notes that a “high proportion of foods currently in the marketplace would not meet these limits [on sodium], even with significant reformulation” .
Its goal, by 2021, is achieving a sodium limit for foods marketed to kids that matches federal labeling regulations for 'low sodium' foods, something the American Bakers Association (ABA) argues would "preclude advertising of nearly all baked goods to children".
ABA senior vice president, government relations and public affairs Lee Sanders, told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “[The IWG proposals] eliminate the ability to promote and advertise very basic and important grain food staples in children’s diets.”
ABA: Proposals contradict government’s own nutritional standards
They also directly contradicted nutrition principles enshrined in the government’s own initiatives, including the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) Program, the national school lunch program and the Healthier US Schools Challenge, claimed Sanders.
This would in effect prevent the promotion of numerous foods the FDA has defined elsewhere as ‘healthy’, including foods authorized for use in health claims; foods USDA promoted for consumption as part of the new Dietary Guidelines and foods enriched products fortified with folic acid, she added.
GMA: Principles must be based on ‘objective science’
The IWG standards were out of sync with the "science-based" 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, agreed Faber.For example, while the Dietary Guidelines set intake goals for different age groups (ages 1-3, 4-8, 9-13, and 14-18), the IWG principles applied broadly to all children and teens, he said.
The sodium and saturated fat levels in the IWG principles were also inconsistent with the Dietary Guidelines, he claimed.
Moreover, fiber, vitamin D, potassium, calcium and enriched grains were omitted from the list of nutrients to encourage, while proposed limits on added sugar could “not be confirmed through labeling, and would require the disclosure of confidential business information, and could lead to consumer confusion”.
Firms would have to axe ‘cherished’ animals, characters
The broad definition of ‘marketing’ enshrined in the IWG principles also meant “packaging, point-of-sale displays, sponsorships of charitable events, and even the shape of food, such as animal crackers” was covered, said Faber.
“Compliance would require manufacturers to remove cherished animals, characters, and sports heroes from our packaging and dramatically reduce our support for community events and organizations, such as local museums and little league teams.”
Although the proposals were voluntary, simply ignoring them was not an option, he said. "People will treat them as regulations, even though they are not subject to any of the same rigor or scrutiny."
Self-regulation has worked, says GMA
By contrast, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) with the Better Business Bureaus provided a far more “transparent and accountable advertising self-regulation mechanism”, insist the ABA and the GMA.
New research showed the average number of ads for cookies, candy, soda and snacks that children aged two to 11 viewed on children’s programming had fallen dramatically between 2004 and 2010, added Faber: “Nevertheless, the IWG did not recognize and build upon the progress made by CFBAI participants.”
Comments on the proposed principles, which are available here, are due by June 13.