Food Fight Over Marketing to Kids

voluntary guideline to limit marketing of unhealthy foods to children may be in jeopardy. (Image: Maartje van Caspel/

Proposed limits on advertising of unhealthy food items directly to children were harshly criticized at a Congressional hearing today.

The proposed limits were part of a set of nutritional standards for foods marketed directly to children, drafted at the behest of Congress by the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, which included the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Federal Trade Commission, the US Food and Drug Administration, and the US Department of Agriculture. The working group’s proposed standards are aimed at ensuring that only more healthful foods are promoted to this age group. As proposed, the guidelines are voluntary and designed as a guideline that food companies could elect to follow.

However, during the hearing, the proposal came under fire by some Congressmen, who argued these voluntary standards represented a “big government” intrusion on parents’ ability to decide what to feed their children. They also complained the standards could lead to lawsuits against food companies and increased costs to consumers.

“While this initiative was portrayed as a helping hand to parents—to reduce children’s exposure to advertising for foods with limited nutritional value—to many of us and our constituents, this appears to be a first step toward Uncle Sam planning our family meals,” said Rep Fred Upton (R, Mich), chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which co-convened the hearing.

But members of the working group defended the plan.

“There is this myth that voluntary guidelines will be the basis of lawsuits against industry,” said David C. Vladeck, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission. He noted no such suits have emerged from similar voluntary guidelines on violence in children’s media.

“Achieving healthful diets for children and youth will require continued public-private partnership and integrated efforts that include industry leadership and initiative …,” said William H. Dietz, MD, PhD, director of the CDC’s division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity, in his prepared testimony. “The [working group] believes that given the persuasive powers of advertising the marketing of healthy foods to children can be a part of the solution.”

Obesity now affects 17% of all US children and adolescents, triple the rate from just 1 generation ago, according to the CDC.

The hearing has led to some concern among observers that the standards will be gutted, including Marion Nestle, MPH, PhD, a prominent nutritionist at New York University, who discussed her concerns on her Food Politics blog (

In an e-mail, Nestle told news@JAMA that she thought the proposed nutritional guidelines were “generous” to food companies, particularly in their allowance for salt.

“This fight is about protecting corporate rights to market junk foods to vulnerable children who would be much better off eating real foods, not food products,” she said. “This is about marketing, not health.”

Categories: Diet, Health Policy, Nutrition/ Malnutrition, Obesity, Pediatrics