Will Food Industry’s New Marketing Guidelines Satisfy the Feds?

Business trying to prevent regulation on advertising to kids

Food and beverage companies are trying to give the government good reason not to go forward with its proposed guidelines for marketing to children. On Thursday, the day comments on those guidelines were due to the Federal Trade Commission, the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which represents companies responsible for 70 percent to 80 percent of all food ads targeted to children, unveiled its own uniform nutrition criteria as part of its filing.

Under the CFBAI's guidelines, about one in three products currently advertised to kids today would not meet the initiative's standards, and the makers of those products would be required to change their recipes or to stop advertising for them after Dec. 31, 2013.

"This is groundbreaking, for the industry to move to uniform standards," said Elaine Kolish, director of the CFBAI, which has been working on the guidelines for more than a year, before the government issued its proposal.

Since the Interagency Working Group (made up of the FTC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) proposed its guidelines in April, the advertising and marketing community has been vigorously fighting back. Though the IWG's guidelines are voluntary, the affected industries say that in practice, the guidelines would really represent stealth regulation since the agencies proposing the guidelines have sweeping oversight of the businesses involved.

It's hard to tell if the CFBAI's new guidelines will change the government's proposal, particularly since it now has more than 400 comment filings to review. CFBAI was reassured by a statement from FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz, however, as he offered some encouraging words for the CFBAI's guidelines, though he stopped short of saying the IWG would withdraw its own guidelines or modify them.

"This 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," said Leibowitz. "The Interagency Working Group should carefully consider this, as well as other stakeholder comments, as we develop the final recommendations required by Congress. Our agency is committed to playing a role in reducing childhood obesity, and doing it in a pragmatic, nonregulatory way, and we applaud industry for making healthy progress." 

Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers, commented, "The FTC's statement is far from definitive, but we'll just have to see. I'm hopeful."

The CFBAI guidelines were developed by food industry scientists and nutritionists. Unlike the IWG's guidelines, which have uniform nutrition requirements regardless of the type of food involved, the CFBAI's recommend nutrition standards for each of 10 product categories, such as juices, dairy, grains, fruits, and vegetables.