Federal Government May Impose Guidelines for Food Advertised to Children

"How will they differentiate youth-targeted marketing from colorful or fun packaging? And who will be responsible for implementing the standards?"

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Colorful marketing appeals to kids, but not federal regulators. [Flickr: elmada]

Recently, one of the leading debates in food policy pertains to the impact that food advertising has on young children. A recent study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University demonstrated that children are more likely to desire foods that are advertised with familiar cartoon characters—but these foods are often less healthy than alternatives.

McDonald's has come under fire for using similar advertising techniques in their Happy Meals, which experts say are often far too caloric and fattening for small children. But these are independent and unconnected efforts to stem the tide of youth-targeted advertising, and are unlikely to lead to massive overhaul on their own.

So how can change be implemented? Well, in December 2009 several federal agencies combined efforts to build a set of regulations to address this problem. Representatives from the FDA, USDA, CDC, and FTC published "Tentative Proposed Standards for Marketing Foods to Children," which details various necessary qualifications for foods to be advertised to children between the ages of two and 17.

Why, you may ask, are we talking about guidelines that were proposed more than six months ago? Well, at the time of the report's release the representatives said these regulations would come before Congress by July 15, 2010. This date is drawing near, and the amount of discussion of childhood obesity and nutrition has been increasing over the past several months.

Whether or not Congress gives these regulations some consideration proves important in shaping this debate in the coming legislative year.

The report is separated into three categories. First, it details foods that are exempt from regulation, such as 100% whole grain products and 100% non-fat milk products and yogurts. The second category says that advertised foods regulated to children must "provide a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet," and lists several ingredient inclusions (such as vegetables, fruits, lean meats, and beans) that would qualify a food item as "healthful." The third category says that the advertised foods cannot "contain more than the following amounts of saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, and sodium," and goes on to specifically list percentage amounts for each.

Under these guidelines, some popular food brands like Pop-Tarts and Lunchables would not be able to market directly to children, their prime clientele. Other products, like peanut butter, canned soups, and most crackers and chips would also be restricted. If implemented, such changes would greatly affect marketing campaigns based on cross-promotion with movies and television shows, and would change the appearance of every supermarket aisle.

There are some questions raised by these guidelines. For instance, how widely will they be applied? How will they differentiate youth-targeted marketing from colorful or fun packaging? And who will be responsible for implementing the standards? As of yet these questions are unanswered, but it is important that they be addressed before real change can be made.

One interesting note about these standards is that they are very accessible to the average reader. Some federal documents, especially those related to the intricacies of food and nutrition policy, and prohibitively jargon-filled. But this report is broken down into three straight-forward categories.

As well as increasing the likelihood that citizens can and will read the document, simplifying the standards will hopefully also make this issue more palatable to Congress. Perhaps massive overhaul will not seem as imposing when the guidelines are laid out in an easy-to-read and implementable format.

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