Lucky Charms. Froot Loops. Cocoa Pebbles. A ConAgra frozen dinner with corn dog and fries. McDonald’s Happy Meals.
These foods might make a nutritionist cringe, but all of them have been identified by food companies as healthy choices they can advertise to children under a three-year-old initiative by the food industry to fight childhood obesity.
Now a hard-nosed effort by the federal government to forge tougher advertising standards that favor more healthful products has become stalled amid industry opposition and deep divisions among regulators.
A report to Congress from several federal agencies — expected to include strict nutritional definitions for the sorts of foods that could be advertised to children — is overdue, and officials say it could be months before it is ready. Some advocates fear the delay could result in the measure being stripped of its toughest provisions.
“All of a sudden everything is dead in the water,” said Dale Kunkel, a communications professor at the University of Arizona who is an expert on children’s advertising. “I have heard no arguments to slow this down other than that the industry doesn’t like it.”
Among the requirements under consideration and included in a preliminary proposal by the agencies: Cereals could have only eight grams of sugar per serving, far less than many cereals that are heavily advertised to children (Lucky Charms and Cocoa Pebbles have 11 grams and Froot Loops has 12). The level for saturated fats would be set so low it would exclude peanut butter. And to qualify for advertising, all foods would have to contain significant amounts of wholesome ingredients like whole grains, low-fat milk, fruits or vegetables.
Critics have long complained that standards used by food manufacturers to designate healthy foods suitable for advertising to children are flawed, with ads for foods high in calories, fat, sugar and salt remaining a prominent part of the Saturday morning ritual on television. The Obama administration, as part of its campaign against childhood obesity, has also called on food companies to do more to ensure that advertising aimed at children is for healthier products.
The federal involvement took a step forward last year when Congress ordered the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend standards for children’s food advertising.
The agencies released the preliminary proposal in December. It was far tougher than many had anticipated; advocates applauded but the food and advertising industries gave it a swift thumbs-down.
“The proposal was extraordinarily restrictive and would virtually end all food advertising as it’s currently carried out to kids under 18 years of age,” said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president for government regulations of the Association of National Advertisers, which represents companies that advertise their products.
Mr. Jaffe said he saw the delay in submitting the final report to Congress as a good sign, suggesting that changes were in the works.
The report was expected last week. Betsy Lordan, a spokeswoman for the Federal Trade Commission, said she could not predict when it would be finished. She said the agencies would first release their plan for public comment before submitting it to Congress.
The far-reaching preliminary proposal — and the resistance it encountered — appear to have put the agencies in a bind and created divisions among them, with some federal officials wanting to step back and take a more measured approach.
Restrictions on advertising are problematic in any event, in large part because of free speech issues.
To avoid a showdown, the Federal Trade Commission has said it wants the food and advertising industries to voluntarily accept changes. But the preliminary proposal would have to be substantially modified to gain industry support — and such changes would undoubtedly lead to charges that the government had backed down under pressure.
“With obesity rates the way they are, it’s no longer acceptable for companies to be marketing foods to kids that contribute to obesity and heart disease and other health problems,” said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.
At the middle of the debate are questions about the industry’s effort to take steps on its own to improve the way it advertises food to children.
The effort, called the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, began in mid-2007 and now involves 16 large companies that account for about three-quarters of the food and beverage ads on children’s television.
Under the initiative, which is run by the Better Business Bureau, each company sets nutritional criteria for foods it considers suitable to advertise.
The companies agree to feature only foods that meet those criteria in ads that appear during programming predominantly aimed at children under 12, like Saturday morning cartoons or certain time slots on the Nickelodeon network. The pledge also applies to some print advertising and Web sites intended for use by young children.
But critics say the nutritional standards the companies chose are too loose.
Kellogg’s standards allow it to advertise cereals that are high in sugar, like Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes, to young children. They also allow marketing for a candy called Yogos, which has sugar as its main ingredient.
Celeste A. Clark, the senior vice president for global nutrition at Kellogg, said in an e-mail message that the company’s cereals provided nutrients children need. Asked why candy qualified as a healthy choice for children, Dr. Clark said, “We believe that with balance and moderation all foods can have a place in the diet.”
McDonald’s and Burger King justify ads for their Happy Meals and Kids Meals by pledging to show lower-calorie versions of the meals in the ads. Those include apple slices instead of French fries and low-fat milk or fruit juice instead of soda. But critics point out that images of those products often appear fleetingly in ads that emphasize movie tie-ins and toy giveaways, and that children might not realize they are being encouraged to choose them because they are healthier.
McDonald’s said in a statement: “Any fair and objective review of our menu and the actions we’ve taken will demonstrate we’ve been responsible, we’re committed to children’s well-being, and we’ll continue to do more.”
Elaine D. Kolish, the industry initiative’s director, said that the program had improved the types of foods featured in children’s advertising and that companies had reformulated dozens of products to reduce sugar, salt and calories.
Four participants in the program, Cadbury, Coca-Cola, Hershey and Mars, have agreed not to aim any advertising to children under 12.
Ms. Kolish said the initiative had been getting more rigorous, with companies increasing the types of marketing covered to include things like computer games and cellphone ads.
“It’s moving the needle,” she said. “We’re not saying things are perfect yet. There’s still room for further growth, but it’s making a difference.”
William Neuman, The New York Times. July 23, 2010
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