Published December 23, 2015
WASHINGTON -- Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam can rest easy. Government officials fine-tuning guidelines for marketing food to children say they won't push the food industry to get rid of colorful cartoon characters on cereal boxes anytime soon.
Allowing the brand icons from popular cereals to remain untouched is one of the concessions officials say they are likely to make as they work to convince food companies to curb junk food marketing to children.
The draft of voluntary guidelines released earlier this year sets maximum levels of fat, sugars and sodium, among other requirements, and asks food companies not to market foods that go beyond those parameters to children ages 2 through 17. The guidelines would apply to many mediums, including ads on television, in stores and on the Internet, in an effort to stem rising obesity levels.
The food industry, backed by House Republicans, who are holding a hearing on the issue Wednesday, has aggressively lobbied against the voluntary guidelines, saying they are too broad and would limit marketing of almost all of the nation's favorite foods, including some yogurts and many children's cereals. Though the guidelines would be voluntary, food companies say they fear the government will retaliate against them if they don't go along.
Officials from the Federal Trade Commission, the Agriculture Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who jointly wrote the guidelines, will on Wednesday face the Republican-led House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has already made its distaste for the proposal clear. In a letter last month, Republicans on the committee wrote the agencies and called the guidelines "little better than a shot in the dark."
Following the industry objections, the congressional pushback and a public comment period on the proposal, the government agencies involved appear to be softening their approach. In testimony released by the committee before the hearing, David Vladeck, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said the coalition of government agencies is "in the midst of making significant revisions to the original proposal.
Among the changes he suggested are narrowing the age group targeted and focusing on children aged 2 to 11 instead of up to age 17 and allowing marketing of the unhealthier foods at fundraisers and sporting events. Vladeck also said that his agency would not recommend that companies change packaging or remove brand characters from food products that don't qualify, as was originally suggested in the guidelines.
"Those elements of packaging, though appealing to children, are also elements of marketing to a broader audience and are inextricably linked to the food's brand identity," Vladeck says in prepared testimony. Tony the Tiger is well-known as the mascot for Frosted Flakes and Toucan Sam for Froot Loops, both Kelloggs' cereals.
Still, industry officials say they would not be appeased by the changes suggested in the prepared testimony. Scott Faber, a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturer's Association, said companies want the government to prove how these changes will help stem obesity and do a cost analysis looking at the effects through the chain to customers.
"The impact of these proposals would be far reaching and negative," he said of the voluntary guidelines.
The industry came out with its own guidelines over the summer, proposing to limit advertising on some foods for children but adjusting the criteria. Though the industry proposal is more lenient than the government one, it has won praise from federal officials, who said they would consider it if they finalize the guidelines.
It isn't clear how soon that will happen. House Republicans have attempted to delay the guidelines through the budget process by asking for further study of the guidelines' impacts.
If they are not delayed by Congress, a final draft of the standards could come by the end of the year.