WASHINGTON -- The government is pressuring food companies to cut back on marketing unhealthy foods to children, releasing guidelines Thursday that could phase out advertisements on television, in stores and on the Internet if companies agree to go along with them.
Under the voluntary guidelines, companies would be urged to only market foods to children ages 2 through 17 if they are low in fats, sugars and sodium and contain specified healthy ingredients. The proposal sets parameters that are stricter than many companies have set for themselves.
If companies agree, children could see much less of the colorful cartoon characters used to advertise cereals or other gimmicks designed to draw their attention. If the food manufacturers wanted to continue that advertising, they would have to reduce unhealthy ingredients in their products.
It is unclear whether government pressure will be effective enough to get many companies to sign on. Some of the country's largest food companies, including McDonalds, General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods Global and PepsiCo Inc., already have joined an initiative sponsored by the Better Business Bureau to limit their marketing to children. The standards are similar but not as strict as the government proposal.
Through similar initiatives and as a result of public pressure, the industry has been successful in reducing the number of television ads aimed at children in recent years, though much of that advertising has moved to the Internet, social media and other digital platforms such as smart phones. Public health advocates argued that the industry's self-regulation is not enough and has pushed the government to set guidelines to pressure them.
In 2009, Congress directed the Federal Trade Commission, Agriculture Department, Food and Drug Administration and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to form a working group and develop the recommendations. The guidelines they wrote are broad, applying to digital media and almost any promotion a child might see for a food, including text messages, product placement in video games and celebrity endorsements.
The agencies said the proposal, which would be phased in over five years and is up for public comment until the summer, is "to encourage a marketing environment that supports, rather than undermines," parents' efforts to get children to eat healthy food.
"While the goals (the guidelines) would set for food marketers are ambitious and would take time to put into place, the public health stakes could not be higher," the working group said in a statement. "One in three children is overweight or obese, and the rates are even higher among some racial and ethnic groups."
The effort is one of many Obama administration initiatives aimed at combating childhood obesity. First lady Michelle Obama has pushed for better school lunches, healthier restaurant meals, more physical activity and other healthy lifestyle changes as part of her "Let's Move" campaign.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, has pushed the government to develop marketing recommendations for several years. She said the guidelines will be a benchmark to measure the companies' progress.
"I don't see them all picking it up tomorrow, but there will be progressive companies that will follow," she said. "Given the progress the country has made on food marketing in the last five years, I feel very optimistic we can get to these new standards in the next five years."
Specifically, the marketing guidelines recommend that companies only market foods that have a significant amount of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk products, fish, extra lean meat, eggs, nuts, seeds or beans. Foods that contain more than a certain amount of trans-fat, saturated fat, added sugars or sodium per serving would not be eligible for marketing to children.
The proposals suggest the industry focus its efforts on foods that are most heavily marketed to children, including breakfast cereals, carbonated beverages, restaurant foods and snack foods.
Dan Jaffe, a lobbyist for the Association of National Advertisers, said the guidelines are "sweeping and, in our view, overly restrictive." He argued that the agencies did not take into account the downswing in ads targeted to children in recent years
"Despite calling these proposals 'voluntary,' the government clearly is trying to place major pressure on the food, beverage and restaurant industries," he said.
As they have had to move away from marketing to kids, many food companies are stepping up efforts to reach the primary shoppers in family households, which are often moms. More ads are popping up on blogs directed at mothers and recipe sites.
Scott Faber, lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said the industry has made progress on both marketing and reformulating recipes. The number of food ads on children's shows has fallen by half since 2004, he said.
"The number of ads for cookies, candy, soda and snacks has dropped even more dramatically," Faber said.