Hearing considers guidelines on marketing food to children

by Jay Sjerven
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Both food industry spokes-men and representatives of an interagency govern-ment working group seemed to agree in principle that food manufacturers adhering to voluntary standards was the way to go with regard to deciding what foods should or should not be marketed specifically to children. But beyond that basic agreement, there were differences over how to approach the marketing of food to children with the aim of reducing childhood obesity, as was evident during an Oct. 12 joint hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s subcommittees on health and on commerce, manufacturing and trade.

Those differences also were reflected in statements by the committee’s members, with Republicans skeptical that the government should be developing voluntary guidelines for industry and Democrats concerned that without guidance from government, industry may have no incentive to voluntarily halt or limit marketing of foods to children that may aggravate the problem of childhood obesity.

The hearing was called to consider recommendations the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (I.W.G.) issued in April for comment from stakeholders. The working group is composed of staff of the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. Congress established the working group in 2009 and directed it to “conduct a study and develop recommendations for standards for the marketing of food when such marketing targets children who are 17 years old or younger or when such food represents a significant component of the diets of children.” The group was to submit to Congress a report containing findings and recommendations by

July 15, 2010.

Industry and government for the past several months have approached the issue of what industry may do to help curb childhood obesity through its advertising targeting children along parallel even if not identical tracks.

The working group issued its preliminary guidelines for comment and review in April, and industry challenged the nutrition principles contained within the guidelines asserting they were unrealistic, un-achievable and unworkable.

But industry did not just criticize. Through its Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, it proposed its own voluntary guidelines establishing criteria for foods marketed specifically to children, and the 17 member companies, which account for most of the processed food offered for sale in the United States.

Jim Baughman, senior marketing counsel for the Campbell Soup Co., told the committee the nutritional criteria of the I.W.G. proposal were contrary to established nutrition policy as set forth in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and that they failed to address obesity. Mr. Baughman also said the I.W.G.’s definition of “marketing to children and adolescents” is “inappropriately broad.”

Mr. Baughman said the recently announced C.F.B.A.I. common nutrition criteria “serve the public interest better than the I.W.G. proposal because they will be implemented more quickly, recognize the differences among types of foods, and directly address the nation’s most important public health issue by placing constraints on calorie levels in foods marketed to children.”

Mr. Baughman said the working group should with-draw its proposed guidelines and instead support the work of the C.F.B.A.I.

Representatives of the I.W.G. at the hearing acknowledged the progress represented by the C.F.B.A.I.’s initiative as announced this past summer and said the working group was in the midst of making “significant revisions” to its preliminary proposal in the light of that initiative and public comment on its preliminary guides.

David C. Vladeck, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the F.T.C., said the working group will take a fresh look at marketing recommendations and is contemplating revising them to more narrowly focus on those marketing techniques that studies suggest are used most extensively to market to children.

Mr. Vladeck said the group also decided it wasn’t necessary to include adolescents aged 12 to 17 within the scope of covered marketing, and he agreed charitable and athletic events and other events targeted to families do not warrant inclusion with more specifically child-directed marketing.

“Finally, the commission staff does not contemplate recommending that food com-panies change the trade dress elements of their packaging or remove brand equity characters from food products that don’t meet nutrition recommendations,” Mr. Vladeck said.

Mr. Vladeck concluded, “As currently contemplated, the work-ing group recommendations on the scope of children’s media are substantially similar to the approach used currently by the vast majority of companies participating in the C.F.B.A.I. self-regulatory program and will cover all of the most important aspects of children’s marketing without being unduly restrictive.”

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