The guidelines are designed to encourage foodmakers to reduce salt, added sugars and fats in foods and drinks targeted to children. If their products did not meet the standards, foodmakers following the guidelines would refrain from advertising them to children.
The standards would be voluntary and not regulations; companies would not be required to meet them, and the government would have no way to enforce them.
Public-health experts say children, many of whom may lack the critical-thinking skills to understand advertising, are bombarded daily by television ads, Web sites, toy giveaways and cartoon characters promoting junk food. The food and beverage industry spends about $2 billion a year marketing directly to children.
The business community has portrayed the government’s guidelines as job-killing government overreach. Foodmakers said the voluntary guidelines are too severe and would prevent them from marketing even relatively healthy foods to children.
Concerned about rising obesity rates among children, Congress in 2009 directed four agencies — the Federal Trade Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department — to propose nutritional standards that food and beverages should meet in order to be marketed to children. The initiative was a bipartisan effort led by then-Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
“We allow companies into our homes to manipulate children to want food that will make them sick,” said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is leading a coalition of public-health groups, including the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, in support of the guidelines.
The four federal agencies unveiled proposed standards in May and are accepting public comment through Thursday before finalizing them in a report to Congress.
The business community has dispatched lobbyists to Capitol Hill, held conference calls for media and produced a print ad extolling its past successes in lowering sugar, sodium and fat in many foods marketed to children.
The food industry developed its own standards in 2006 for products marketed to children, but critics say that those efforts at self-regulation lack uniformity and that results have been modest. Foodmakers are updating those industry standards and plan to release a new version of them by Thursday.
Advertising executives touted one economic analysis that suggested the government’s guidelines would kill 75,000 jobs annually, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce highlighted a legal scholar’s assessment that the voluntary standards would impede commercial speech.