Score One for Big Food: Industry Preempts New Fed Guidelines for Marketing Food to Kids

Well, we’ve seen this move before.

You might recall that a few months ago,while the federal government was working with the food industry to come up with new, front-of-package nutrition labeling, industry abruptly broke off talks and announced its own “Nutrition Keys” initiative, a labeling program which has been criticized as ineffective and self-serving.  It was a savvy move to pre-empt federal regulation and score PR points.

Now, just as the comment period has closed on proposed voluntary federal guidelines to rein in the marketing of junk food to children, Big Food has announced its own new advertising guidelines which are — surprise, surprise — less rigorous than what the federal government had in mind.

The industry association behind these new guidelines will be familiar if you’re a regular reader of TLT.  It’s the Council of Better Business Bureaus’ “Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative” (CFBAI)  which, as I’ve discussed in the past (“Fox Guards Henhouse:  Industry’s ‘Self-Regulation’ of Children’s Food Advertising“) has done a fairly dismal job to date of regulating the marketing of unhealthful foods to children.

By way of reminder, here are some foods that presently meet the CFBAI’s definition of “better for you” foods that can be freely advertised to kids:

firecracker cupcakepebblesjpgcookiecrisp

Hmm. . .  . doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in this group, does it?

Under its new proposal, the CFBAI promises to impose a single nutritional standard on its members’ food products, as opposed to letting each company decide for itself which foods meet the “better for you” test.  That is indeed an improvement, since the old system yielded the questionable results shown above.

However, the industry’s proposed nutritional standards would not, according to the New York Times, “require food makers to change much — two-thirds of the products the companies now advertise already meet them. And the levels fall far short of nutritional standards proposed by regulators.”

Some of the improvements promised by the CFBAI are a reduction in sugar in advertised cereals from twelve grams per serving to ten (the federal government wanted a reduction to eight grams per serving) and a reduction of sodium in canned pastas from 750 mg to 600 mg.  You can see all the new proposed criteria here; manufacturers will have until 2014 to reformulate their products to meet them.

The FTC, one of the agencies involved in the drafting of the new federal guidelines, gave the industry proposal qualified praise:

“The industry’s uniform standards are a significant advance and exactly the type of initiative the commission had in mind when we started pushing for self-regulation more than five years ago,” Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, said in a statement about the advertising initiative.

The Times account goes on to note that “[r]egulators say they hope that industry embraces the [federal] guidelines voluntarily and there are no plans to make them enforceable through legislation or formal regulation.”

But you may also recall my recent post on efforts by the House GOP to delay progress on the federal guidelines by including in next year’s FTC budget a requirement that they be studied for their “potential costs and impacts.”  In other words, House Republicans, backed by the powerful food lobby, are trying to prevent the federal guidelines from ever seeing the light of day.

Meanwhile, just to put it all in quick perspective, here are a few products that may still be marketed relentlessly to your kids, even after the industry’s new guidelines are in effect:

In other words, score one for Big Food.

[Ed Note: I promised a reader, Mel, a response to his recent comment that any effort to regulate the marketing of food to kids is governmental nannying that ignores the role parents should play in overseeing their kids’ diets.  I had intended to post my thoughts in the coming days but this breaking news item took precedence.  I’ll get back to Mel, and other readers who might share his view, as soon as possible.]


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  1. says

    Thank you for your always up to date and informative news on these topics Bettina. My job as a parent is always to show my kids that they have the power to make good choices in everything they do, despite the enormous temptations available from those who do not have our best interests at heart. And I’ll keep doing it no matter what these big companies have to say about it.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      So glad to share this info, Kelly! I find this issue really interesting, maybe because of my background as an advertising lawyer who worked for food companies. And I agree — the parent always, in the end, has to be the gatekeeper and teacher.

  2. says

    I was at Costco years ago and compared the ‘low fat’ microwave popcorn to the regular… the big “difference?” Serving size! The “healthier” one had smaller servings and less per bag, rather than less actual fat/salt/etc per ounce. I’m sure that’s how they’ll get around the 10g sugar per serving…. just make smaller serving sizes!
    I wish “serving sizes” had to be based on FDA food group serving sizes somehow… Like to get 1 full FDA-guideline serving of protein or grains or veggies, or whatever the manufacturer decides the main point of that food is, the serving size is then that much protein plus all the other stuff in there… Or maybe instead of saying what % of daily allowance is of each ingredient, say what % of a daily SERVING is, so if I know my kid needs 3 servings of protein, say, it’s more helpful than a % based on an adult diet, or an average adult diet (I don’t need as much, since I’m smaller!)
    And I think serving sizes should at least be based on something reasonable. I mean, please. A small bottle of soda is 2 servings? Really? I RARELY see anyone sharing their 12-oz sports drink or cola. 12 M&Ms? On what planet does someone stop at 12?

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Ludicrous Mama – Well, as someone who used to do this stuff for a living (as an advertising/regulatory lawyer for a food/consumer product conglomerate), I doubt the CFBAI is messing with portion size — I think they really are reducing the sugar in the standard size. But you raise a larger point, which is that FDA serving sizes, which were formulated decades ago, are hopelessly outdated now. I’m sure you’ve seen those pictures that show a muffin in the 50’s (tiny) versus our gargantuan muffins today, and the growth in what we consider a standard serving is true across the board.

      • says

        Sadly, those little portions from the 50s are out of date because our eyeballs grew along with our waistlines thanks to the whole “Super Size Me” thing. More is always better, right? Uh, no… I always think about how much thinner the population was 40 and 50 years ago. They simply ate less. I’m not really sure that we should update the serving sizes. I know I’m actually trying to eat (just) those smaller portions. Chew more, eat less, lol.


  1. […] Of my three proposals, the third—inoculation—struck me as the most important by far. Currently Big Food spends almost $2 billion annually to market mostly unhealthful products to children, yet children lack the intellectual ability to view these advertisements critically, making them particularly vulnerable targets. Nonetheless, past efforts to rein in these advertising messages—such as the purely voluntary guidelines proposed in 2011 by a federal interagency working group (including the FTC, FDA and USDA)—have failed under intense industry lobbying. […]

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