WASHINGTON — The government is pressuring food companies to cut back on marketing unhealthful foods to children, releasing guidelines Thursday that could phase out advertisements on television, in stores and on the Internet if companies agree to go along with them.
Under the voluntary guidelines, companies would be urged to market foods to children ages 2 through 17 only if they are low in fats, sugars and sodium and contain specified healthful ingredients. The proposal sets parameters that are stricter than many companies have set for themselves.
If companies agree, children could see much less of the colorful cartoon characters used to advertise cereals or other gimmicks designed to draw their attention. If the food manufacturers wanted to continue that advertising, they would have to reduce unhealthy ingredients in their products.
It is unclear whether government pressure will be effective enough to get many companies to sign on. Some of the country’s largest food companies, including McDonald’s, General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods Global and PepsiCo Inc., already have joined an initiative sponsored by the Better Business Bureau to limit their marketing to children. The standards are similar but not as strict as the government proposal.
Through similar initiatives and as a result of public pressure, the industry has been successful in reducing the number of television ads aimed at children in recent years, though much of that advertising has moved to the Internet, social media and other digital platforms such as smartphones. Public health advocates argued that the industry’s self-regulation is not enough and has pushed the government to set guidelines to pressure them.
In 2009, Congress directed the Federal Trade Commission, Agriculture Department, Food and Drug Administration and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to form a working group and develop the recommendations. The guidelines they wrote are broad, applying to digital media and almost any promotion a child might see for a food, including text messages, product placement in video games and celebrity endorsements.
The agencies said the proposal, which would be phased in over five years and is up for public comment until the summer, is “to encourage a marketing environment that supports, rather than undermines,” parents’ efforts to get children to eat healthy food.
“While the goals [the guidelines] would set for food marketers are ambitious and would take time to put into place, the public health stakes could not be higher,” the working group said in a statement. “One in three children is overweight or obese, and the rates are even higher among some racial and ethnic groups.”
Dan Jaffe, a lobbyist for the Association of National Advertisers, said the guidelines are “sweeping and, in our view, overly restrictive.” He argued that the agencies did not take into account the downswing in ads targeted to children in recent years.
“Despite calling these proposals ‘voluntary,’ the government clearly is trying to place major pressure on the food, beverage and restaurant industries,” he said.