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Federal regulators rethinking guidelines on marketing food to children

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A federal proposal that would restrict the kinds of foods marketed to children may soon be substantially changed to address the concerns raised by the food and beverage industry, which has aggressively lobbied against the plan for months.

In a statement submitted to a House panel on Monday, a federal regulator deeply involved in developing the voluntary guidelines said the government is taking a “fresh look” at its proposal and rethinking some of its most hotly contested aspects, including how it defines “children.”

The guidelines, designed to tackle childhood obesity, called on the industry to market to children only those foods and drinks that make a “meaningful contribution” to a healthful diet and to limit sodium, fats and added sugars in products. Under the voluntary plan, foods that don’t meet the criteria should not be marketed to children.

But since the plan was unveiled in May, the nation’s largest food makers, fast-food chains and media giants have railed against it. The industry, which adopted its own standards in 2006 and updated them recently, said the plan is so strict it would in effect wipe out advertising to kids and teens, eliminate millions of jobs and infringe on commercial speech.

The Federal Trade Commission, which worked with three other agencies on the guidelines and took the lead on the marketing components, is now “contemplating revising them to more narrowly focus on those marketing techniques that our studies suggest are used most extensively to market to children,” David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in the statement submitted to Congress in advance of a Wednesday hearing on this topic.

For starters, the FTC initially aimed to restrict the marketing to children ages 2 to 17, vastly expanding the industry’s self-imposed 2 to 11 age limit. But the FTC concluded “that, with the exception of certain in-school marketing activities, it is not necessary to encompass adolescents ages 12 to 17, within the scope of covered marketing” Vladeck said.

The initial plan — also crafted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration and Agriculture Department — extended beyond television, print and radio marketing to other marketing venues, such as Internet pop-up ads, online sweepstakes, advertising through cellphones, celebrity endorsements, in-school marketing and character licensing.

But the FTC now believes that charitable events, entertainment and sporting events and theme parks should not be covered because they do not specifically target children but rather a much wider audience, Vladeck said. The commission also does not expect to recommend that food companies remove “brand equity characters” from products that don’t meet the nutrition guidelines.

“The Commission is making a real effort to avoid pulling in marketing activities that are family-oriented or directed to a more general audience and to limit the revised approach to marketing that more exclusively targets the child only,” Vladeck said.

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