Foodmakers May Change Recipes in Fare Marketed to U.S. Kids

Nestle SA and Kellogg Co. will stop marketing some foods to children after 2013 unless sugar, sodium and fat are reduced under new industry standards that aren’t as stringent as a U.S. proposal.

The Council of Better Business Bureaus in Arlington, Virginia, unveiled voluntary nutrition criteria today setting a 350-calorie limit for main dishes marketed to kids younger than 12, and capping child-targeted cereals at 10 grams of added and naturally occurring sugar combined. Kellogg’s current sugar standard is 12 grams for cereals advertised to children.

A U.S. plan recommends tougher benchmarks than industry and covers ads to those younger than 18. The Obama administration is trying to cut a child obesity rate that’s almost tripled since 1980 to 17 percent, or 12.5 million Americans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. U.S. consumers spend about $147 billion a year on obesity-related medical costs, with Medicare and Medicaid covering 42 percent.

The new industry plan is “really a groundbreaking agreement with the leading food and beverage companies,” said Elaine Kolish, vice president and director of the council’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. “For the first time, companies are going to be using uniform nutrition criteria instead of company-specific criteria.”

Nestle, Kraft, Kellogg

The 17 participating companies conduct the majority of U.S. food advertising directed at children, Kolish said. They include Nestle and Kraft Foods Inc., the two biggest foodmakers, as well as Battle Creek, Michigan-based Kellogg, the largest U.S. breakfast-cereal maker.

Participants now set their own criteria for meeting the five-year-old initiative’s core principles of ensuring foods advertised to children are “healthy dietary choices” or “better-for-you products.”

One-third of the products that meet the initiative’s current guidelines will have to be reformulated by Dec. 31, 2013, to meet the new standards for child-directed advertising, Kolish said. Kellogg, for instance, would have to cut 2 grams of sugar from its Froot Loops cereal, and 1 gram from Frosted Flakes, to meet the 10-gram limit.

“This is a step forward,” Robert Post, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, said of the industry plan in an interview. “Hopefully it will have that effect of helping the manufacturers reformulate foods to make them healthier.”

‘Significant Advance’

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

Unlike voluntary guidelines proposed by a federal working group in April, the industry’s restrictions don’t apply to food packaging. The two-year-old working group, created by Congress, includes officials from the USDA, FTC, CDC and Food and Drug Administration.

The proposed U.S. guidelines for self-regulation would apply to 20 types of advertising and promotion, including food packages, in-store displays, and television, print and Internet ads. The plan would urge companies not to target those materials to children and teens for products with more than 13 grams of added sugars, 210 grams of sodium or 1 gram of saturated fat.

Public Health Stakes

“The Working Group believes the goals are appropriate, given the voluntary nature of the goals, the proposal’s limited application to marketing aimed directly to children, and the tremendous public health stakes for our kids,” David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said July 1 in a blog post on the agency’s website.

Kolish called the U.S. proposal “unrealistic and unworkable.” Reducing a product’s sodium to 210 milligrams “vastly underestimates the technical difficulties involved and the willingness of consumers to eat a product like that,” she said today in an interview.

The industry’s new sodium limits vary by product, with maximums of 110 milligrams for dairy-based desserts, 140 milligrams for yogurts, 290 milligrams for cheese products and 480 milligrams for soups, meat, fish and poultry.

The council plans to submit its new criteria to the federal working group as part of a public comment period that ends today, Kolish said.

Post said the working group will consider the industry’s new guidelines, along with all other comments from the public, as it develops its final recommendations.

Consistent Standard

The industry’s new criteria aren’t a substitute for the government’s proposed guidelines, said Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.

Still, “it’s great that the industry has recognized that there should be one consistent nutrition standard for food marketing to kids,” Wootan said today in an interview. “We’ve been urging that for many years.”

The estimated costs of obesity to government health programs came in a report July 7 from the Trust for America’s Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

(Updates with comment from USDA in eighth paragraph.)
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