WASHINGTON – The food and advertising industries are pushing back against an Obama administration proposal that calls for food makers to voluntarily limit the way they market sugary cereals, salty snacks and other foods to children and teens.
From yogurt makers to candy manufacturers, they lined up Tuesday to tell regulators that the first-ever proposed guidelines for marketing to children would not stop the childhood obesity problem but would certainly hurt their businesses and abridge their right to free speech.
The guidelines, ordered by Congress and written by a team from the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Agriculture Department, ignited a debate about the role of marketing in soaring obesity rates among children.
“I can’t imagine any mom in America who thinks stripping tigers and toucans off cereal boxes will do anything to reduce obesity,” said Scott Faber, a vice president at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food makers and retailers.
But public interest groups and health experts say tighter controls on advertising will make a difference.
“It’s clear that food marketing to children is a big factor,” said Daniel Levy of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Children and teens are being hit by food ads wherever they turn,” said Levy, adding that teen-agers can now receive promotional messages about marketing deals on their cell phones as they pass fast-food restaurants.
The regulators held Tuesday’s meeting to gather input from the public. They are accepting written comments until July 14 before finalizing the recommendations and submitting them in a report to Congress.
The far-reaching guidelines would cover a wide array of marketing, from traditional media such as television, print and radio to pop-up ads on Internet sites. They would apply to social media, toys in fast-food meals, ads shown in movie theaters , sponsorship of athletic teams and philanthropic activities, as well as product placement in movies and video games.
“Marketing campaigns are highly integrated, very sophisticated with the result that marketing messages are ubiquitous,” said Michelle Rusk, an attorney at the Federal Trade Commission. “TV and traditional media are only about half of the marketing to children, maybe even less.”
The guidelines would be voluntary and implemented over a decade. But food companies and advertising firms say they would feel great pressure to follow guidelines, making them de facto regulations.
“This is a classic case of backdoor regulation,” said Dan Jaffe of the Association of National Advertisers.
Advertising aimed at children is a big business; food companies spend about $2 billion a year to advertise to children.
Regulators say they hope the guidelines will nudge manufacturers to improve the nutritional content of processed foods aimed at children and teens.
“We don’t want them to just quit marketing to children but to lower the sugar content or include more whole grains and then market these better options to children,” Rusk said.
Food makers repeatedly said that they were already policing themselves and no additional measures were necessary. Since 2006, 17 food and beverage companies have participated in an industry program to restrict some marketing aimed at children. But that program lacks uniform standards, allowing each participating company to set its own criteria.
“Self-regulation shows hints of progress, but it’s not working well enough to protect our children,” said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which supports the proposed federal guidelines along with several major public health organizations.
The guidelines say foods that are advertised to children cannot exceed limited amounts of added sugars, saturated fat, sodium or trans fat. And they must include healthy ingredients, such as fruit and vegetables, low-fat dairy products or whole grains.
The sugar limits would pose a problem for many foods currently marketed to children. Under the guidelines, one serving of a food aimed at children could not exceed 8 grams of sugar. A single serving of Count Chocula cereal currently contains 12 grams of sugar; a serving of Frosted Flakes contains 11 grams.
The guidelines would apply to both young children and teenagers. Food makers and advertisers argue the guidelines should be more narrowly tailored when applied to teen-agers because much of the programming and media consumed by teen-agers are also seen by adults.
Federal regulators say they will take that notion into consideration in the final recommendations.