by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: FTC (Federal Trade Commission)

Jun 10 2010

Mead-Johnson withdraws Chocolate toddler formula: Meaningful or just PR?

Mead Johnson announced yesterday that it was withdrawing its Enfagrow Chocolate Toddler Formula–just the Chocolate version–from the market:

Like all our Enfagrow Premium products, the recently introduced chocolate-flavored version has a superior nutritional profile to many other beverages typically consumed by toddlers — including apple juice, grape juice, and similarly flavored dairy drinks. Unfortunately, there has been some misunderstanding and mischaracterization regarding the intended consumer for this product and the proper role it can play in a child’s balanced diet. The resulting debate has distracted attention from the overall benefits of the brand, so we have decided to discontinue production of Enfagrow Premium chocolate toddler drink and phase it out over the coming weeks.

I can’t resist quoting the Chicago Tribune’s explanation of the origin of the debate caused by “misunderstanding and mischaracterization:”

Introduced in February, the chocolate-flavored formula was widely criticized in the blogosphere after Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, wrote that the drink would lead children to crave sugary beverages on her influential blog, www.foodpolitics.com.

Influential?  Maybe, but it seems that my comments on this formula did not go nearly far enough.  Mead-Johnson may be withdrawing the Chocolate version, but it is keeping the Vanilla (as explained by Susan James on ABCNews.com, which also quotes me).

What’s the difference?  The Vanilla has exactly one gram less sugar than the Chocolate, 18 grams per 6-ounce serving, rather than 19 grams.  In contrast, the milk in my refrigerator has 9 grams of sugar (natural, not added) in 6 ounces.

Clearly, Mead-Johnson doesn’t get that it’s the sugars, stupid.

Why do I think this is a PR stunt?  Three reasons:

  • The Vanilla doubles the sugars in regular milk.
  • The Vanilla has the same health claims as the Chocolate: growth, brain development, and immunity.
  • Mead-Johnson’s stock went up after the announcement.

One more time: Where are the FDA and FTC on this product?  This Immunity claim is no different from the one on Kellogg’s Krispies cereals that the FTC went after a couple of days ago.

Tomorrow: Some speculation on why the FDA is reluctant to take on things like this.

Addition, June 11: Here is Melanie Warner’s take on this on her BNet Food Industry blog site (she quotes my post).

Jun 8 2010

FTC goes after Kellogg’s Immunity claim, but why?

The FTC has imposed new advertising restrictions on Kellogg because of the Immunity claim on Rice Krispies.  The company is not to make claims about “any health benefit of any food  unless the claims are backed by scientific evidence and not misleading.”

Under a previous order dealing with Frosted Mini-Wheats, Kellogg was not supposed to make claims about benefits to cognition on any of its cereals or snack foods unless the company could prove that the claims were backed by real science. This new decision extends that ruling to include any claim at all.

OK, but I’m confused about several aspects of this decision:

  • How come the FTC is doing this and not the FDA?  At some point years ago, regulatory responsibility was split between FDA and FTC.  Since then, the FDA regulates claims on food package labels, whereas the FTC regulates advertising claims.  I realize that food labels are a form of advertising, but it’s unusual and surprising for the FTC to get involved in FDA-regulated matters.
  • As FoodNavigator also wonders, why didn’t the FTC fine the company and, instead, write a harsh letter? [see update below]
  • Why is the FTC doing this?  Kellogg agreed months ago to withdraw its Immunity claim ( see my November 5 post about the withdrawal).  The Immunity boxes gradually disappeared from supermarket shelves and I haven’t seen one for a long time.

So what’s going on here?  Is the FTC getting serious about regulation (and about time, too)?  Or is FDA sitting back and letting the FTC do its enforcement work?

Could this be why the FDA hasn’t sent a warning letter to Mead-Johnson, the maker of the chocolate toddler formula with three health claims aimed at kids ages 1 to 3.  I posted about this product on April 26, but haven’t heard whether the FDA is doing anything about it.  Can the FTC be on this case but waiting for investigations to be completed before taking action?

Kellogg, it seems, is under fire on all fronts.  CSPI’s Margo Wootan sent me the recent decision by the Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the Better Business Bureau that Kellogg must stop advertising Pop-Tarts to kids:

CARU was concerned that the product packaging, which features berries and states “Made with Real Fruit” for several of Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts®  products that have fruit in their names, impliedly represents to children that the products contain substantial amounts of fruit.

In fact, according to CARU, Pop-Tarts contain less than 6% fruit and less than 2% of the fruit shown in the advertising. Kellogg claimed that its marketing was not aimed at kids, but lost that one.

It’s great that regulatory agencies like FTC and FDA (and voluntary agencies like CARU) are regulating but it’s hard to keep track of who is doing what.   Nothing to do but wait and see what happens next.  Stay tuned.

Update, June 8: CSPI’s Margo Wootan writes that FTC can’t impose fines because it does not have the authority to issue civil penalties.  Ted Mermin of Public Good Law concurs.  He says:

Companies fight hard to make FTC (and similar) orders as narrow as possible, in large part to avoid precisely the situation in which they are held responsible for violating an existing injunction/order.  Since (in the Commission’s view, at least) Kellogg hadn’t violated an existing order, the FTC did not have the authority to fine them without first going to the US Department of Justice to get DOJ to take the case (a matter of a 45 day delay, if DOJ takes it at all).  The burden of that delay (and of needing to get authority from DOJ in the first place) is precisely what is driving the congressional charge for enhanced FTC authority as part of the financial reform legislation.

If the House version of financial reform legislation had been in effect, the FTC would have had the authority to seek civil penalties (i.e., fines) and the outcome here might have been different.  As it was, the fact that Kellogg had stopped the practice…kept the Commission (at least the three commissioners in the “majority”) from focusing on any remedy other than injunctive relief–that is, a broadening of the existing order from the Mini-Wheats case, with the threat of that $16,000 per violation (and an expanded area of prohibited activity) running into the future.

Update, June 11: In an editorial titled “Snake oil for breakfast,” the New York Times explains why health claims matter so much.  If you can’t believe health claims, what part of the food label can you believe?:

Businesses have been making dubious claims about their products at least since the 17th century, when the British clergyman Anthony Daffy sold Daffy’s Elixir as a cure for scurvy as well as agues, gout, rheumatism, rickets, worms and other ailments. Hucksterism — no matter how implausible the claim — lives on…[for example] POM Wonderful claimed its pomegranate juice helps treat, prevent or cure hypertension, diabetes and cancer.  This might be par for the course for an era of swift-boating political ads and a torrent of television commercials plumping for myriad wonder drugs (sudden death may result). It leaves the consumer in a quandary: what part of the label can be believed?

Apr 30 2010

Food politics: our government at work (and play)

I’ve been collecting items sent to me this week about government actions at the local, state, and national level.  Here’s the weekend round up.

Santa Clara County, California, Board of Supervisors bans toys in kids meals: On April 27, the San Jose Mercury News announced that this county, clearly at the vanguard of actions to help prevent childhood obesity, passed a groundbreaking law banning toys in kids’ meals that do not meet minimal nutrition standards (the very ones I talked about in a previous post).  Companies can still give out toys in meals, as long as the meals meet those standards.  What an excellent idea.  Let’s hope this idea catches on in other communities.

Here’s the press release, a a fact sheet on childhood obesity, and remarks by the president of the board of supervisors, along with recommendations from the local public health agency.  Thanks to Michele Simon for the documents.

Connecticut state legislature plays computer games: This photo, attributed to the Associated Press, arrived from Michelle Futrell.  I worried that it might be Photoshopped.  Whether it is or not, it is flying around the Internet, in versions that clearly identify each of hard-at-play legislators.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) teaches kids about marketing: The FTC regulates advertising, including food advertising, and it must be getting increasingly concerned about the effects of marketing on kids.  To counter some of these effects, it has created a website, Admongo.gov, an interactive site to teach kids about advertising.  After playing these games, the FTC wants kids to be able to answer these questions:

  • Who is responsible for the ad?
  • What is the ad actually saying?
  • What does the ad want me to do?

The New York Times concludes: “Perhaps the effort comes not a moment too soon. Adweek devotes this week’s issue to “Kids” and “How the industry is striving to conquer this coveted market.” Thanks to Lisa Young for sending the links.

The FDA asks for comments on front-of-package (FOP) labeling: Patricia Kuntze, a consumer affairs advisor at the FDA sends the April 28 press release and the April 29 Federal Register notice announcing the FDA’s call for public comment on this topic.  The agency particularly wants data on:

  • The extent to which consumers notice, use, and understand FOP nutrition symbols or shelf tags
  • Results of research examining the effectiveness of various FOP approaches
  • Graphic design, marketing, and advertising that will help consumers understand nutrition information
  • The extent to which FOP labeling influences food manufacturers’ decisions about the contents of their products

The goal, says the FDA, is to make “calorie and nutrition information available to consumers in ways that will help them choose foods for more healthful diets – an effort that has taken on special importance, given the prevalence of obesity and diet-related diseases in the U.S. and of increasingly busy lifestyles that demand quick, nutritious food.”

Here is a speech on the topic by FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.  For information about how to submit comments, click here. To submit comments, refer to docket FDA-2010-N-0210 and click here. You have until July 28 to do it.

Public comment, of course, includes the food industry and a FoodNavigator call for industry comment cites my recent commentary in JAMA with David Ludwig.  I’m glad food industry people are reading it and I hope the FDA does too.

The White House equivocates on organics: What’s going on with the White House garden?  Is it organic or not?   Michael Pollan forwards this item from the Associated Press:

Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass, an old friend of President Barack Obama’s who oversees the garden, says labeling the crops “organic” isn’t the point, even though the White House only uses natural, not synthetic, fertilizers and pesticides.

“To come out and say (organic) is the one and only way, which is how this would be interpreted, doesn’t make any sense,” Kass said Monday as he walked among the garden’s newly planted broccoli, rhubarb, carrots and spinach. “This is not about getting into all that. This is about kids.”

Uh oh.  Has “Organic” become the new O-word?  Surely, the White House is not secretly pouring herbicides and pesticides over its garden vegetables.  If not, are we hearing a small indication of big agribusiness pushback?

Apr 22 2010

American youth too fat to fight?

Food politics makes strange bedfellows.

The Associated Press reports that an organization of retired military personnel, Mission Readiness, is upset about obesity.  American youth, it says, are  Too Fat to Fight. Obesity may be a threat to personal health, but this group sees the problem as a threat to national security (see note below).

Here’s the irony.  The exact opposite was true in World War II.  Then, the army had trouble finding recruits who were not undernourished.

How did we go from lean to fat?  TV food commercials, for one thing, says Jane Brody in a review of recent studies.   Kids eat what they see.  The Rudd Center at Yale has even more recent data on the number of commercials watched by young children.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is responsible for regulating advertising.  It has been making noises lately about taking on food marketing to kids.  I’ve heard rumors that the FTC is ready to release a report on the topic but food marketer’ complaints are holding it up.  Many marketers (not just of food) are worried that the FTC might move to restrict Internet marketing.

This might be a good time to ask the FTC what it is doing about food marketing to kids.

Note: Thanks to Bob Bannister for reminding me of George Saunders’ Shouts & Murmurs piece on this topic in the New Yorker.

Addition, April 22: The rumors about food industry pressures on the FTC turn out to be true.  Margo Wootan of CSPI reports on a meeting today with representatives of the FTC:

A number of members of the Food Marketing Workgroup met with FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz today and delivered the letter [urging the FTC to publish standards for marketing to children]. It was a good meeting.They said that the standards are not in jeopardy and should be out in the near future. All the industry opposition has caused the agencies to go through a more thorough (i.e., slow) clearance process.

If you can’t block action, you can always delay it as long as possible.

Dec 19 2009

Serving size standards: maybe not so bad after all?

I received a flurry of “you should have attended the meeting before you said anything” messages in response to my post yesterday about the FTC forum.  They said the table that I posted did not have footnotes attached and I also had missed a key point about RACC (reference amounts commonly consumed): they are likely to be larger than current FDA serving sizes, meaning that the amounts of sugars and salt will have to be reduced to qualify.

Guilty as charged.  RACC, as I mentioned yesterday, is a new term to me.  This is because – how could anyone have missed this – I was unaware of the FDA’s Federal Register notice of April 4, 2005: “Serving sizes of products that can reasonably be consumed at one eating occasion; Updating of reference amounts customarily consumed; Approaches for recommending smaller portion sizes.”

This notice was the result of concerns about the serving sizes that had been established when the FDA issued final food labeling regulations in 1993.  Then, the FDA established serving sizes for 129 product categories for adult foods and 11 categories for infant and toddler foods.  These were derived from information about amounts commonly consumed reported in food consumption surveys from the late 1970s and late 1980s.

Either people ate a lot less back then or they were lying, or both.  As my former doctoral student, now Dr. Lisa Young, discovered during her doctoral research, standard portion sizes – half a cup of ice cream or one 2 or 3-ounce slice of pizza, for example – are smaller (sometimes much smaller) than what people seem to be actually eating.

The FDA knew this.  In 2003, it appointed an Obesity Working Group to advise the agency about several issues, among them whether to update the RACCs.  The Group filed its report in 2004.  With respect to serving size, it recommended:

* In the short-term, that FDA encourage manufacturers immediately to take advantage of the flexibility in current regulations on serving sizes that allows food packages to be labeled as a single-serving if the entire content of the package can reasonably be consumed at a single-eating occasion.

* In the long-term, that FDA develop two separate ANPRMs [Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking].  The first would solicit comment on whether to require additional columns within the nutrition label to list the quantitative amounts and %DV of the entire package on those products and package sizes that can reasonably be consumed at one eating occasion or, alternatively, declare the whole package as a single serving. This ANPRM would also solicit information on products and package sizes that can reasonably be consumed at one eating occasion.  The second ANPRM would solicit comments on which, if any, RACCs of food categories appear to have changed the most over the past decade and therefore need to be updated.

On that basis, the FDA’s 2005 Federal Register notice asked for comments about whether:

  • Consumers might “think that an increase in serving size on food labels means more of the food should be eaten.”
  • Manufacturers might repackage products in larger sizes to avoid labeling a package as a single serving.
  • Manufacturers might reduce the size of single-serving packages to reduce the apparent content of undesirable nutrients.

That was nearly five years ago.  If anything further happened, I cannot find it in the Federal Register. Getting to these questions at last was apparently the point of the FTC forum.

I am told that panelists suggested raising the RACC serving size of kids’ cereals to 50 grams rather than the current 30 grams.  If so, this would require cereal companies to reduce the amount of sugars in their products.   Aha!  That could explain why, as I discussed in a previous post, General Mills chose to put its full-page ads in newspapers promising to drop the sugars to single digits.  General Mills must think changes in the RACC for cereals will require it to lower the sugars in order to be able to advertise to kids under the voluntary guidelines. Given how long the FDA’s processes take, it is understandable why General Mills failed to say when it would implement its promist.  I am also told that the salt cut-point is open for comment.

For those of us who were not at the Forum and prefer to see such things in writing, how about releasing the footnotes to that chart and giving us some examples of the proposed changes to the RACC?  Also, how about setting up a mechanism so interested people can file official comments on the proposals?  Both would help people offer more informed comments on how the FDA should handle the serving size issues.

Update, December 20: Thanks to Ellen Fried for providing a link to some food industry opinion on what all this is about and another an in-the-know source that says the proposed standards are to be published in the Federal Register and opened for further public comment in January.  The project is to be finished by July.  Ellen points out that this procedure seems administratively complicated for standards that are not regulations; they are voluntary. Do the FTC and FDA really have to go through all this to issue what is simply guidance?  Or is something else going on here that I’m not getting?

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?

Dec 14 2009

FTC Hearing on Kids’ marketing: a preview

The FTC forum on food marketing to kids takes place tomorrow, December 15.  Recall that the industry-sponsored Children’s Food and Beverage Initiative says the industry doesn’t need regulation, as its self-regulation policies are working just fine.

The research, alas, says otherwise.  According to a report released today, self-regulation is a joke.  An independent investigation of industry marketing-to-kids practices, by Dale Kunkel and his colleagues from the University of Arizona, concludes:

  • Most ads for foods produced by self-regulating companies are for junk foods
  • Ads for healthy foods are virtually non-existent
  • Licensed cartoon characters are increasingly used to market junk foods to kids
  • At least a quarter of junk food ads come from companies that do not self-regulate
  • Improvements are negligible

Senator Tom Harkin, who has been introducing legislation to restrict children’s food advertising, says he’s disappointed:

The food industry vowed to limit the amount of advertising dollars spent to promote unhealthy foods to children, and focus more on nutritious items.  That’s why I am so discouraged by this report out today.  When private interests work against the public good, government is obliged to act. We need to examine this issue more closely and figure what needs to be done to achieve balance on the airwaves so that we can improve the health and wellness of our children.

Jeffrey Chester, of the Center for Digital Democracy, points out that he, Kathryn Montgomery of the Center for Communications at American University, and Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, have been studying the way food companies advertise on the Internet.  Kathryn Montgomery will be presenting their conclusions from a series of papers examining digital advertising, along with some more recent examples of food marketing to kids in action.

The food industry’s job is to sell more food, not less.  Because restrictions on advertising are not in industry’s best interest, it is unreasonable to expect self-regulation to work.  That is why we need government to get in there and establish some checks and balances.  The forum should be interesting.  I’m hoping it will lead to FTC action.  Maybe it will even get some of Harkin’s colleagues to do some real work on this issue.  Fingers crossed!

Update, December 15: Here’s what The FTC released at the forum – standards for the kinds of products that food companies can market to children.  These look good but are voluntary. Good enough? I don’t think so.  And here’s a report on what happened.

Dec 5 2009

Food agencies at work (or not): FTC

The Federal Trade Commission is the third agency dealing with food policies, this time advertising.  As I’m fond of saying, the FTC is not exactly a consumer protection agency.  Its main purpose is to make sure that businesses stay competitive.  In 1978, under the leadership of Michael Pertschuk, the FTC made a valiant attempt to regulate food marketing to children.  That disaster, which I have discussed in previous posts, kept the FTC from doing anything about marketing to kids – until recently.

On December 15, it is holding a forum on food marketing to children in Washington, DC.  Here’s the agenda and information about registration.  They will also do a webcast linked to that site.

Guess what?  A forum like this isn’t necessary, says the industry-sponsored Children’s Food and Beverage Initiative. We are doing just fine, it says, and we don’t need regulation.

But that’s not all the FTC is doing. It had so much fun trying to get information from food companies about their marketing-to-kids practices that it is trying the same thing with quick service and fast food restaurants.  The FTC says it is seeking “Information from those companies concerning, among other things, their marketing activities and expenditures targeted to children and adolescents and nutritional information about the companies’ food and beverage products marketed to children and adolescents.”  This sounds easy, if a bit confusing, but my guess is that the FTC will have to pull teeth to get it.

In the meantime, a few comments have already been filed in response to the notice.   The ones from industry are predictable: too expensive! Too difficult! My guess is that they have this information readily available but are embarrassed to reveal it. Why? It undoubtedly will show that the companies spend the most money on the junkiest (and most profitable) products.

Michael Pertschuk, by the way, is still going strong.  In June, he wrote an article on the FTC for The Nation. His article has much to say about the way the FTC is operating these days and is well worth a look.  As he explains, the FTC was

created in 1914 during the Progressive Era, [and] was endowed with a potent authority for promoting competition and consumer protection that it has never fully used. This includes investigative authority over virtually all businesses, backed by subpoena power and the capacity to demand reports of data that corporations would rather withhold from public view…For the first time in decades, the Senate and House authorizing and oversight committees and the judiciary committees are pressing the agency to act more aggressively on the consumer-protection and competition fronts and are prepared, as needed, to strengthen its enforcement powers….But Congress needs to take action to unleash the FTC’s full potential. First, it remains a small agency with broad and complex responsibilities and cumbersome procedural burdens, especially in rule-making. Here, the FTC’s champions in Congress can make certain that Congress supplies more resources and streamlines the FTC’s authority. The agency also has a chronic problem of setting priorities: wherever it turns, there are corporate malefactors, large and small, deserving of prosecution.

But read the whole thing and see whether you think his optimism is justified.  Better yet, go to the workshop on the 15th!

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