Makers of food, drinks marketed to children propose their own rules

7/18/2011 23:22:00 PM

The plan from the industry, in a move to keep the government from enacting stronger regulations, puts limits on sugar, calories, sodium and saturated fat in products.

In an effort to forestall proposed government regulation of food and beverage products that can be advertised to children, some of the biggest companies in the industry have put forth their own, self-imposed measures.

The industry's plan targets a number of food types, including juices, dairy products, grains, soups and meals. It holds companies to limits on the amount of calories, sugar, sodium and saturated fat allowed in foods promoted to children.

The self-imposed regulations, announced Thursday, would give companies time to make adjustments. Under the plan, the recipes of about one-third of all food and beverages marketed to children would have to change as of Dec. 31, 2013, if they are to continue being advertised.

The self-regulation effort involved a number of the largest food and beverage producers in the U.S., including Kraft Foods Inc., Kellogg Co., Nestle, Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc.

The move came after a handful of federal agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission, were directed by Congress to establish guidelines for such advertising.

Industry officials applauded the effort as a compromise with government, which in April proposed guidelines that some company executives worried would eliminate virtually all food advertising directed toward anyone younger than 18.

"The numbers, the limits and the maximums they were setting … weren't really going to work," said Elaine Kolish, vice president and director of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a coalition of 17 food and beverage companies that released the self-imposed nutritional regulations. "We think our proposal is a really good road map to leading to further improvements in foods."

Although the new standards are not as stringent as the government's recommended guidelines, Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz hailed the effort as an important step forward.

"The industry's uniform standards are a significant advance, and are exactly the type of initiative the commission had in mind when we started pushing for self-regulation more than five years ago," Leibowitz said in a statement. "The Interagency Working Group should carefully consider this, as well as other stakeholder comments, as we develop the final recommendations required by Congress."

The government is trying to cut a child obesity rate that has almost tripled in the last three decades to 17%, or 12.5 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Our agency is committed to playing a role in reducing childhood obesity — and doing it in a pragmatic, non-regulatory way — and we applaud industry for making healthy progress," Leibowitz said.

One expert was skeptical, however. Dale Kunkel, professor of communication at the University of Arizona, said that despite past efforts to self-regulate, 72.5% of the foods in television advertisements directed at children rank in the poorest nutritional category.

Industry officials are "claiming that they know better than the nation's leading nutritional and public health experts about what's appropriate," Kunkel said. "This would be like asking the public to have speed limits set by the auto industry — the car manufacturers rather than the government."

Kunkel noted that some child advocates think self-regulation is the only realistic goal. Ultimately, however, "the shortcomings to self-regulation will be demonstrated," he said.

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