WASHINGTON - The U.S. government on Thursday pressured food companies to cut back on aggressive advertising of junk food to kids, saying it contributes to a serious health crisis facing young Americans.
The administration issued proposed voluntary principles which would turn children's food advertising on its head by calling for advertisements to be for foods that "make a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet" and minimize ingredients that could have a negative impact on weight and health.
The Obama administration, with its goal of containing healthcare costs, has emphasized children's health. First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign has pushed children to exercise and eat better.
The interagency working group that released the principles is made up of the Federal Trade Commission, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture. It put together the proposal at the prompting of Congress.
If implemented, the guidelines would mean a revolution in food advertising to children, which is now dominated by ads for salty chips and sugary cereals, drinks and yogurt.
"The (FTC) commission is aware of the significant impact the proposal would have on the current marketplace. A significant percentage of the products currently marketed to children would not meet the proposed nutrition principles. Some foods would likely require substantial reformulation," the five FTC commissioners said in a statement.
While obesity rates have largely stopped rising, 10.4 percent of U.S. children aged 2 to 5 are obese, 19.6 percent of 6-11 year olds are obese and 18.1 percent of 12-19 year olds are obese, according to 2007-2008 data from the CDC. Nearly one in three U.S. children are overweight.
Children were defined as being up to age 17, and the principles were to be implemented by 2016.
"On a daily basis, kids across the country are barraged with ads for junk foods and it is long past time that we put some limits on the advertising of these unhealthy foods. Armed with these guidelines, it is now my hope that companies will voluntarily abide by them," said Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and chair of the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee, in a statement.
The Association of National Advertisers and Grocery Manufacturers Association put out a study on Thursday showing television advertisements aimed at kids under 12 for junk foods like cookies and soft drinks had already been virtually eliminated.
Meanwhile ads for fruit and vegetable juices had doubled, the groups found.
"The advertising community has actively responded to the obesity challenge in the United States and this study once again confirms that food and beverage advertising directed to children under 12 has trended significantly downwards, said Bob Liodice, ANA president.
Margo Wootan, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, agreed that there had been improved food marketing to children -- in particular the reduction in ads for sodas.
She also lauded candy company Mars for stopping television advertising aimed at children and some cereal companies for cutting their sugar content.
"They should get credit for making some progress in the past five or six years. But the problem is it's not nearly enough," she said. "It's pretty amazing with the high concern of childhood obesity that the overwhelming majority of ads to kids are for fast food."
Wootan said her hope was companies would either reformulate foods to make them healthier or end ads to children.
(Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Bernard Orr)