WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation’s largest food companies say they will cut back on marketing unhealthy foods to children, proposing their own set of advertising standards after rejecting similar guidelines proposed by the federal government.

A coalition of food companies — including General Mills, ConAgra Foods and Kellogg — announced the guidelines Thursday. The companies said the effort will vastly change what is advertised, forcing them to curb advertising on one out of three products currently marketed to children.

The new standards, which will allow companies to advertise food and beverage products to children if they meet certain nutritional criteria, could force some brands to change recipes to include less sodium, fat, sugars and calories. While many companies have trumpeted their own efforts to market healthier foods to kids, the agreement would apply the same standards to all of the participating companies.

“Now foods from different companies, such as cereals or canned pastas, will meet the same nutrition criteria, rather than similar but slightly different company-specific criteria,” said Elaine Kolish of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a group formed by the industry to address marketing issues.

The group’s proposal was pushed along by a government effort to do the same thing. The Federal Trade Commission and several other government agencies were directed by Congress to come up with voluntary guidelines for marketing junk food to children, and those were issued earlier this year. The industry balked at that proposal, saying the voluntary standards were too broad and would limit marketing of almost all of the nation’s favorite foods, including some yogurts and many children’s cereals.

Not surprisingly, the proposal issued by the government is stricter than the standards the companies are pushing for themselves. Still, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz praised the industry guidelines Thursday. He said the government would consider the food companies’ initiative as the government develops its own standards.

“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 … we applaud industry for making healthy progress,” he said.

While the government proposal put broad limits on fats, sugars and sodium that would apply to marketing of all foods, the industry has suggested different guidelines for different foods, saying that is a more practical approach.

The industry guidelines for children’s cereals, for example, would allow them to be advertised if they have around 10 grams of sugar a serving, while the formula used by the government would discourage advertising for cereals that have 8 grams of sugars in an equivalent serving. That would mean General Mills would still be able to advertise Honey Nut Cheerios cereal under the industry guidelines but would be discouraged under the voluntary government guidelines. Other sugary cereals such as Trix, Lucky Charms and Count Chocula would also make the cut under the industry numbers.

Another difference between the proposals is where companies are allowed to advertise. While the government guidelines are broad, discouraging advertising of unhealthy foods on packaging and in stores, along with in the media, the industry guidelines would apply to media — television, radio, print, video games and the Internet — but not packaging. That means the little bee on the front of the Honey Nut Cheerios box and the rabbit on the Trix box would stay under the industry proposal and go under the government draft.

Even if the industry standards are not as strict as the government guidelines, they still represent progress on the part of the companies. Many companies now advertise any children’s cereals that have less than 12 grams of sugar, down from 15 or 16 grams of sugars a decade ago.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, praised the industry for pushing for uniform standards for all of the companies, though she said they do not go far enough. She said she hopes the industry standards are a jumping-off point for negotiations with health advocates and the government.

“The government agencies have developed standards that are best for kids and the companies have developed standards that are best for industry, now we need to work out a reasonable compromise,” she said.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the Democrat who wrote the language directing the government to develop the standards, said he believes the industry proposal falls short.

“With childhood obesity rates rising, now is the time for all parties to rally around those guidelines and begin implementing them, rather than coming up with competing proposals,” he said.

That may be a while off. House Republicans have included a provision in next year’s Federal Trade Commission budget that would delay the government standards by asking the government to study the potential cost and impact of the guidelines before implementing them.

If they are not delayed by Congress, a final draft of the standards could come by the end of the year.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Comments (12)
  1. Mark from Minnesota Tax Waste says:

    We don’t need companies or the government to tell us how to feed our children!

    1. Rogue says:

      Then don’t complain about increased medical costs. Not saying you are a bad parent, but Fatter kids= higher risk of diabetes and heart disease = increased healthcare costs passed onto every other consumer.

      1. momof5 says:

        I don’t need the govt or anyone else telling me how to feed my children. I have 5 kids and none of them are overweight and we don’t always eat the healthiest either because we are always on the go for some activity. We do not watch much tv in our house, if it is nice outside we are outside not sitting in the house. my kids are all involved in sports and when they aren’t doing a sporting activity we are out for a walk or riding our bikes. My 10 year old will go for a run with me about 2-3 times a week, I don’t have to force my kids to be active because that is just how my husband and I raised them. Maybe if more parents would get outside and be active with their kids we wouldn’t have the obesity rate so high. Maybe the govt should worry more about getting phy ed class back in the schools instead of what the kids are eating. My children have phy ed class 3 times a week and my daughter has told me that some kids in her class have said that is the only exercise they get,

        1. The Architect says:

          “I don’t need the govt or anyone else telling me how to feed my children.”

          Great. But nobody is trying to tell you how to feed your children.

          So, thanks for oversharing details of your life, but this isn’t a government action the article is talking about, and nobody is telling you anything about what to do.

  2. Scott Funk says:

    Actually, time and again the corporations have proven that their record for being responsible over time (ever since the 1800’s) is spotty at best, and horrible at worst. Thing is, I’d prefer regulation that is according to scientific standards, not the typically self interested corporate or partially ignorant government ones. Mark, you need to learn something called “nuance” and less absolutism. Ideology is not a good guide for anything, particularly when it’s an absolute dedication to B&W, binary responses to real world problems. Put simply, you aren’t being even remotely realistic.

  3. JMJ says:

    Advertising is not the problem, the parents are. But government should really keep their nose out of it.

    1. The Architect says:

      This isn’t a government action. I thought the article made that very clear. And nobody is telling you what to feed yourself OR your children. That was also very clear in the article.

      1. Mark from Minnesota Tax Waste says:

        You might need the State or a Business to tell you how to live your life, but we do not. And you are wrong this was mandated by the Feds in 2009

        1. Locutus says:

          What does this mean then?

          “proposing their own set of advertising standards after rejecting similar guidelines proposed by the federal government.”

      2. momof5 says:

        yes they are telling me how to feed my kids because they are talking about changing the way they produce cereal and other canned pastas that my kids eat. If you think I have shared too much don’t read my comment. My point is maybe parents just need to be parents and become involved in their children’s lives instead of expecting the tv or video games to entertain their kids. Maybe the problem with why kids are overweight and adults for that matter is because they aren’t active enough. think about what kinds of food people ate back in the 1800s and early 1900s and from what I have learned they didn’t seem to weight problems back then because they didn’t just lay around all day.

        1. The Architect says:

          “yes they are telling me how to feed my kids because they are talking about changing the way they produce cereal and other canned pastas that my kids eat.”

          Changes are made to recipes all the time, dear. That isn’t the government and that isn’t someone telling you what to feed your kids.
          I think the problem is that you didn’t read the article, or if you did, you didn’t understand it, or the 3rd possibility is that you read it but you’re commenting off-topic anyway.

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