Prepared Foods Exclusive: Making the Kids Alright
William Roberts, Business Editor

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently held a series of seminars aiming to reduce childhood obesity, and a series of speakers explored the current practices invoked in marketing to young people. In addition, agency efforts are underway to augment the nutritional standards of the foods and beverages being marketed to children.

Declaring childhood obesity “an epidemic of alarming proportions,” Jon Leibowitz, FTC chairman, explained the task at hand: to hear evidence on the impact marketing has on children’s food preferences, to discuss the legal implications of regulating advertising to children, and to hear preliminary standards developed by the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG).

Leibowitz noted changes have come--but in small increments. "The FTC is boldly calling on the food industry to address this...It's time for the food industry to 'super-size' its efforts in this area."

The FTC called on all food and beverage manufacturers to meet the nutritional guidelines for foods marketed to kids and will soon send subpoenas to 44 food marketers to evaluate whether their efforts have met the FTC standard and what it views as "effective self- regulation."

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), noted the share of American children who are overweight is four times the amount it was just four years ago. In an effort to combat this issue, HHS has identified two key areas to focus its efforts: labeling and entertainment.

* Nutrition Facts Panel: When the consumer knows how to use the NFP, it can be a benefit, but that comprehension is by no means universal. The FDA is updating the food label to reflect more recent consensus science reports, including new dietary reference intakes, and considering how to make the label a better tool for people to build healthier diets.

* Front of Pack Labeling: The HHS, Sebelius noted, recognizes the appeal of easy-to-understand icons that denote the healthfulness of a product. HHS/FDA is conducting consumer research on front-of-package icons with the goal of creating a universal system to drive market innovations and to help people quickly identify healthier choices.

* HHS is involved in the IWG (along with the FTC and USDA) that is proposing tentative nutrition standards for foods marketed to kids. These standards will be provided to the public for review and comment before a formal report is provided to Congress in July 2010.

A panel discussing the industry's self-regulatory initiatives explained the results of a voluntary industry effort on advertising products' nutritional quality. According to the panel, 100% of the pledging companies' advertising efforts complied with their promise. However, Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), found 60% of products from pledged companies do not meet her organization's "third party" standards. In her mind, for self-regulation to work, all companies need a marketing policy which covers all marketing and has strong definitions of kid-targeted marketing efforts, while adopting a common set of nutritional standards.

The IWG is working to develop standards for the marketing of foods to people 17 and under, with its goal being obesity prevention and chief targets being the ingredients in foods. Its nutrition goals, as they currently stand, will be to reduce consumption; decrease high-energy foods; reduce the number of sugar beverages; decrease television viewing times among teens and children; and increase their energy expenditure through daily physical activity. One area highlighted was sodium consumption. While the 2005 RDI calls for less than 2,300mg per day, the average intake is 3,466mg, and a 50% reduction would "help in a variety of health arenas," noted Michelle Rusk, senior attorney with the FTC’s Division of Advertising Practices.

Barbara Schneeman, director of the Office of Nutrition, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, explored the three-sectioned proposed standards.  Standard I would be part of a healthful diet, exempt from II and III below. Standard I would include all 100% fruit and vegetable juices, all low-fat and non-fat milk and yogurt, 100% whole grains and water.

Standards II and III are a bit more complicated. The two are to work together. II indicates food marketed to children must provide a "meaningful contribution to a healthful diet," but the final decision on Standard II has yet to be made. Option A would demand a "food must contain at least 50% by weight, or one or more of the following: a fruit, vegetable, whole grain, fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt, fish, extra-lean meat or poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds or beans. So it's simply using a by-weight criterion," she reported.

The other option under consideration for Standard II is somewhat more complicated. Schneeman explains, "Option B refers back to the concept of the recommended serving. So, if we look at the food guide developed by USDA commonly known as My Pyramid, but referred to in the dietary guidelines for Americans, there are several food groups that are recommended, and if we take the approach of saying you would typically achieve those food groups over four eating occasions per day--three meals and one snack--then a quarter of that recommended serving is what would constitute a meaningful contribution of a food group within a single food. So, the numbers here under option B lay out what would be a quarter of the food groups that are encouraged or recommended. We recognize that in some cases, that may be equivalent to the RACC, the reference amount customarily consumed, so that is something we would adjust for."

Meanwhile, Standard III dictates the limits upon foods marketed to children: per RACC, no more than 1g of saturated fat, 0g (<0.5g) of trans fat, no more than 13g of added sugar and no more than 200mg of sodium per portion. Again, these standards are in the FDA's proposal stage, and any approval is not expected before summer, at the earliest.

Michelle Rusk, senior attorney, advertising practices, FTC, and a member of the IWG, said, “We really see this as a set of standards to guide the industry in determining what is appropriate to market to children. If the industry responds, and we certainly hope and expect that they will limit children’s marketing to the foods that meet these standards, then we really do believe it will have a meaningful impact on children’s food choices, on their diets and, ultimately, on their health, and that is really what was driving the work of the group.”

Concluding the forum, David C. Vladeck, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, remarked, “To be clear, these standards will not be regulations. They will not be binding, but we expect the food industry to make great strides in limiting children-directed marketing to foods that meet these standards. If not, I suspect Congress may decide for all of us what additional steps are required.”

Other Web Resources
FDA Cracks Down on Labels
Moms' Diets Impact Kids' Diets
Changes in RTE Cereal Consumption
State of School Nutrition

From the March 29, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition