FTC Proposes Regulations on Foods Marketed to Children


[Flickr: Tara Whitsitt]

It's no mystery why countless sugary cereals, boxed lunches, and Keebler elfin cookies are advertised with colorful cartoon characters—children are a prime audience for food marketers. Recently, these advertising practices have been called into question by many parents, doctors, policymakers, and activists who link the high rate of childhood obesity with the appealing visuals on packaged junky foods.

In response to these concerns, the Federal Trade Commission last week released recommended guidelines for marketing food to children. These guidelines will be open for public comment and soon sent to Congress for consideration.

The report was co-authored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the Food and Drug Administration; and the Center for Disease Control. The main principles are twofold: first, that all foods marketed to children should provide a "meaningful contribution to a healthy diet"; and second, that said foods should not exceed given limits of saturated fat, sodium, trans fat, or added sugars.

They suggest that by 2016, all foods marketed to children should comply with these two principles.

There has already been pushback from food marketing agencies, as reported on Advertising Age. The requirements have been critiqued as overly restrictive, and industry representatives predict that there will be significant financial and logistical difficulties for companies wishing to comply with regulations.

While the regulations are voluntary, one representative indicated that the combined pressure from these four powerful agencies would lead to widespread compliance across the industry. Perhaps this would be better for parents and children, but advertisers and manufacturers could suffer.

A 2008 report by the FTC revealed that nearly $2 billion is spent on marketing food products to children and adolescents. The largest amount of advertising is on television, with about half of all spending focused in that sector. Other outlets include product packaging, internet banners, and displays in stores or restaurants.

An interesting component of the new guidelines is that the FTC defines "children" as those between the ages of two and 17. Advertisers take issue with this detail because they categorize "adults" as over the age of 12. One representative claims that "past 12, we believe kids are fully able to understand advertising and to deal with it." As such, 12 to 17-year-olds should not require special advertisement protections of this sort.

One of the most outspoken advocates of this sort of reform has been Michelle Obama, whose Let's Move! campaign focuses on ending childhood obesity. She applauded the new regulations, and encouraged industry to comply. She also emphasized that manufacturers should now focus energies on increased advertising of healthy foods to children, so that an alternative to junk food is equally appealing.

It will be interesting to see what feedback the public comment period, which ends on June 13, brings. While the FTC provides some suggestions of how to go about reforming product advertising, it seems that more specifics will have to be discussed before the regulations pass.

I also find it compelling that Michelle Obama insists on the importance of advertising healthy foods. In my view, a healthier overall food system is one where we're decreasing the commodification of food, rather than making broccoli the new Disney channel sponsored product. What do you think? Should foods marketed to children have healthiness standards?

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.