by Marion Nestle
Dec 18 2009

Standards for marketing foods to kids: tentative, proposed, weak

I could not go to the Federal Trade Commission’s December 15 forum on food marketing to children (see previous post), but from all reports I missed quite a show.

Officials of four federal agencies involved in food and food regulation – FTC, FDA, USDA, and CDC – released the results of their collaborative efforts to set standards for marketing foods to kids through an Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children.  Congress established this group through the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act.  It specified that the group was to set up standards for identifying foods that should not be marketed to children and to publish them by July 15, 2010.

And what standards did the four agencies come up with?  Here are the working group’s recommendations:

Take a look at these “Tentative Proposed Standards for Marketing Food to Children 2-17″ and decide for yourself whether they are even remotely meaningful.

The Standards are divided into three categories: Standard 1 is real (largely unprocessed) foods with no added sweeteners or functional ingredients.  These could be marketed to children with no further scrutiny.

Foods that do not meet Standard 1 would be required to meet both Standards 2 and 3 in order to be marketed to children.

Standard 2 applies to foods that “must provide a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet” in one of two ways: containing 50% by weight of real foods (Option A), or by containing defined amounts of some useful nutrients per RACC (Option B).  RACC is a new term to me.  Apparently, it means “reference amount customarily consumed.”   I have no idea what these are but let’s call them serving size.

And what about the cut points?  No foods marketed to children can exceed Standard 3 (“nutrients to limit”):

  • Saturated fat: 1 gram or less per serving and not more than 15% of calories
  • Trans fat: less than half a gram per serving
  • Sugar: no more than 13 grams per serving
  • Sodium: no more than 200 mg per serving (equivalent to half a gram of salt)

Got that?  It’s enough to make me weep.

Apparently, the agencies did not give examples of products that might qualify or not, so you have to do your own work on this.  So that leaves me with some questions about the tentative proposed standards:

  • Which products qualify and which do not?  It looks to me like the criteria will continue to permit the marketing of questionably nutritious products to kids.  Sugary kids’ breakfast cereals should easily qualify; most do not contain more than 13 grams of sugars per serving or more than 200 mg sodium.
  • What is the definition of RACC?  I don’t see a definition in the document.  Without a definition, are companies permitted to define serving sizes for themselves and, maybe, reduce the stated serving size to meet the standards?
  • Is there any accountability for meeting the standards?  The entire program is voluntary. Alas, we have already had years of experience with industry “self-regulation” and know that it does not work.

This is the best government agencies could come up with?  I see this as further evidence for the need to stop companies from marketing foods to kids.  Period.

Or am I missing something?

  • Anthro

    Oh, Marion, this truly as disheartening as the Health Care Bill. All power to the Corporations (and their shareholders).

    I could go on about how I never fed my kids this junk anyway, but that is NOT the point–every day I see relatively poor people, often immigrants, buying every single thing they see as “American” or that they apparently think makes them upwardly mobile to feed their (many) children (who are often obese at age five or so). These children are the future and the food companies prey on their parents’ ignorance (not stupidity). This is why I wince every time a well-to-do friend tells me that (fill in the blank) shares are up–even in “this economy”! When I try to explain the ramifications of these profits, he says I’m just “no fun”.

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  • http://www.forkandbottle.com Jack Everitt

    You’re not missing anything. What spineless government agencies we have!

    Yes, companies should simply not be allowed to market food to kids. Period. No-brainer.

  • Jennifer

    I have to agree with Jack. Children can’t have jobs or make money, therefore children shouldn’t be marketed to. That would solve a lot of problems.

  • http://www.mediterraneandiet.tv/ EdSanDiego

    I hate to have to say this again: The First Amendment; The Right to Free Speech will triumph again on this one.

    For regulation on kids marketing to work, federal government has to make foods high in sugar, fat and / or salt illegal in certain quantities or parts per gram of food served or portion serving.

    Any other approach will see big food businesses hiring an army of civil rights lawyers.

  • Cindy

    Ed, advertising is not protected speech. The government regulates it when it wants to, e.g., tobacco, alcohol.

  • http://www.mediterraneandiet.tv/ EdSanDiego

    Cindy, selling tobacco and alcohol to minors is illegal so it can be regulated. Food is not illegal, although sugar, fat and / or salt can be just as destructive to health in extreme quantities.

    I didn’t go to the Federal Trade Commission conference, but I watched it live on web cast. The Right to Free Speech took front and centre stage on the issue.

    I share your’s and everyone’s concern on the issue.

  • Ronald

    Ed,
    I agree that that first amendment should be protected, but Jennifer has a valid point. Think about it from a business perspective; why would you market a product to a jobless, credit-less person who makes no household decisions?…Unless your motive was to add heat to the pressure cooker that is the family dynamic and increase revenue at the same time. Suspect ethics at best.

  • http://www.usfoodpolicy.blogspot.com Parke

    This is probably more detail than you want about First Amendment arguments, but …

    Under a principle called the “Central Hudson Test,” the government may restrict commercial speech for illegal products, like tobacco sales to minors. But, in contrast with Ed’s comment, that is not the only type of speech that can be restricted. The government may also restrict commercial speech that is misleading, and also if the restriction meets the following two criteria: (a) the restriction serves a compelling public purpose, and (b) the restriction is no more burdensome than necessary.

    Many public health advocates don’t like the Central Hudson test, but it doesn’t bother me. Currently, the U.S. is trying a period of self-regulation, and reasonable people may conclude it failed. Perhaps, if we let the attempt run just a little longer, it will soon be possible to say quite plainly that stronger restrictions on advertising to children meet the Central Hudson test and satisfy the legal community’s principles for judging First Amendment arguments.

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  • Helen

    I’m wondering if we need an all or nothing kind of law regarding advertising to children. Back in the day before cable, that was one reason my kids watched a lot of PBS: no advertising at all. Children believe everything, including that those special shoes really make you run faster and jump higher. I can still sing the Nestle’s Quik jingle from the 1950’s, and see the dog puppet snapping his mouth shut at the end of his “song”. Advertising to children is big business, and what will the fast food companies, for starters, do of they can’t advertise to children? Most three year olds in urban settings recognize fast food logos, and if you don’t believe that, just drive by McDonalds (or Tim Hortons if you’re Canadian) and see what they say. If they’ve ever gotten food from there, they are just as persistant as my friend’s collie who recognizes the Dairy Freeze drive-in, where she’s eaten soft serve cones.

  • Anthro

    @Ronald

    The whole idea of advertising to children is to get them to NAG their parents. Millions have been spent of the psychology of this approach. What’s worse is that the wingnuts turn around and try to reduce the issue to one of parental responsibility.

    Take a look at “Appetite For Profit” by attorney, Michelle Simon for a good look at advertising and the food industry.

    To Someone Else Above: Sadly, PBS now has many corporate sponsors (cereal, McDonald’s) on children’s shows. Kill your television.

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