Food Industry Braces for New Study on Marketing to Kids

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A food advertising industry representative today said she is hopeful that a revised Federal Trade Commission report on how companies promote their products to children will reflect improvements in food marketing to that audience when it's released later this year.

"I know there have been many positive changes," Elaine Kolish, director of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, said of the 16-company, self-regulating initiative she represents that includes Kraft Foods and McDonald's.

Since that program started in 2006, she said, the improvements have included a reduction in sugar, sodium and an increase in whole grain.

Kolish, a vice president of the Council of Better Business Bureaus who previously worked for 25 years at the FTC, most recently as head of the enforcement division in the Bureau of Consumer Protection, said the companies she represents are "very committed to being a part of the solution of advertising healthier products to children as determined by meaningful nutrition standards."

Kolish said the FTC's guidelines last year were "unrealistic and unworkable," such as proposing that food companies reduce the Food and Drug Administration's healthy level sodium level by more than 50 percent in five years.

Instead, her group is working on a project for uniform criteria for self-regulation that the companies have agreed to use by the end of 2013.

As for the FTC, it is revising a 2008 report that looked at how food companies market their products to children, and what effects it has on childhood obesity, based on data from 2006.

The new report, which is scheduled to be released by the end of 2012, will examine 2009 data that the FTC subpoenaed from more than 40 companies.

This is a considerable step after Congress last year shot down the recommendations of an interagency working group composed of the FTC, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had been formed in 2009. The group, which was led by former U.S. Sens. Sam Brownback and Tom Harkin, had been tasked with developing recommendations for the nutritional quality of food marketed to kids ages 2 to 17. They came out with a set of proposed voluntary principles that could be used by the food industry, and testified before Congress in October.

But it went nowhere. "Congress was concerned that the proposal was too strict and unrealistic and it would be too difficult for the companies to abide by those guidelines," said Mary Engle, associate director for advertising practices for the FTC, in Washington, D.C.

"Food advertisers and the advertising industry in general made it very clear they were opposed to the guidelines. We received hundreds of letters from members of congress, indicating that they thought the interagency working group should not finalize those proposed guidelines."

So the working group essentially dismantled, and its final guidelines were never released.

There has been a renewed interest of late in the subject of marketing food that's high in calories and low in nutrition to youngsters. According to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, the food industry spends more than $1.6 billion annually to market these messages, via TV, the Internet, social media, video games, movies, sports and music events, in-store displays and packaging, and even schools.

According to the Rudd Center, only small advances have been made in curbing the practice, despite the fact that in November 2006, 16 members of the food industry launched a self-regulation program, The Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, part of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which is designed to encourage healthier foods advertised to children younger than 12. So far, only the Coca-Cola Co., Hershey Co. and Mars Inc. have stopped targeting kids. The other 13 - which include the Burger King Corp., Campbell Soup Co. and Nestle USA - have pledged that all their child-directed ads would be for healthier foods.

But according to the Rudd Center, from 2008 to 2011, total media spending to promote child-targeted cereals increased by 34 percent. And though companies did improve the nutritional quality of most cereals marketed to children, they also increased child-targeted advertising for some of their least nutritious products, including Reese's Puffs, Fruit Loops and Pebbles.

What's more, companies continue to aggressively market their least nutritious products directly to children, the Rudd Center found. The more nutritious and lower-sugar cereals like regular Cheerios and Frosted Mini-Wheats, were marketed to parents, not children.

The FTC hopes to come to its own conclusions with its updated report. "We'll be able to make a comparison to see whether the kinds of activities companies use to market to children has changed," Engle said. "In addition, we'll be able to make some limited comparisons as to the nutritional quality of the foods being advertised to kids."