Imminent US food guidelines may set global precedent


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Through the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act, the US Congress established an Interagency Working Group (IWG), which was mandated to develop guidelines for food and beverage advertising to children and adolescents aged 2 to 17 years. The IWG represents the following four federal agencies: Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This development followed mounting federal government and NGO pressure on food marketing to children under the Obama administration.

On 15 December 2009, the IWG tabled a set of "Tentative Proposed Standards for Marketing Food to Children 2-17" during an FTC conference on Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity. The tentative proposal tabled in December 2009 did not make clear how these standards should apply in practice, i.e. how "marketing to children aged 2-17" would be defined (media channels, audience thresholds, etc).

The tentative draft IWG standards tabled in December 2009 are understood to be potentially problematic for most major food companies. Following intense discussions and informal submissions to the IWG, led by the FTC, the IWG is due to publish the official "Proposed Standards" shortly. The original target date of 22 February 2010 has been repeatedly put back. The official IWG proposal will be open for public consultation for 45 days following publication in the Federal Register.

The Standards for Marketing Food to Children of 2-17 years will remain voluntary guidelines unless Congress decides to pass legislation making them mandatory (such as Congressman Moran's proposed Healthy Kids Act). However, if this does not occur, it is expected that Congress will put pressure on food companies to apply the guidelines, possibly through the well-established means of open letters to food companies signed by prominent Congressmen.

Needless to say, the guidelines are likely to set a global precedent, which would be difficult for other governments to ignore.

Latest news:
The Council of Better Business Bureaus leads the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Unit (CFBAI) (or "US Pledge Programme"), which is currently conducting a Nutrition Science Review in Washington DC. The review allows for a broad evaluation of the nutritional criteria set by companies under the US pledge, as well as an opportunity to establish common/stronger nutritional standards for US Pledge member companies.

At this meeting, William Dietz (Director at CDC and member of the US Interagency Working Group) gave an update on the IWG guidelines. Some key points:

- The final draft standards are not that far off the tentative standards released in December 2009. The IWG considers the standards to be in line with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released last Monday. The standards will include nutritional criteria for meals and main dishes.

- CDC and FTC recognise the efforts made by industry to reformulate children's foods and limit what is being marketed to children. However, Dr. Dietz is particularly concerned about internet advertising, especially online games. The IWG standards will cover marketing to children broadly. The FTC urged US Pledge member companies to extend their commitments to all marketing techniques.

- The final draft standards are currently awaiting clearance within the FTC. USDA, FDA and Dept of Health and Human Services will also have to give clearance before they are published. There is no target date for publication and neither CDC nor FTC would make any predictions, except for saying that "[they] are much, much closer now". FTC does not foresee any major obstacles to internal clearance.

- One issue that had not been addressed under the tentative standards previously released related to the definition of child audiences/what constitutes marketing targeted at children. Informally, the FTC representative explained that their answer was twofold: 1.They are looking at multiple criteria, e.g. an audience-share based definition, combined with criteria regarding programme content and type of creative and 2. They do understand that teenagers understand advertising better/differently than younger children and conceptually they agree that definitions might need to be adapted to reflect this; but they don't really know how to; they look forward to industry input in this respect.

- Once the Federal agencies clear and publish the standards, they will be open for public consultation. CDC and FTC would particularly welcome evidence as to why specific aspects of the standards would be problematic; whether there should be interim targets; how long the industry might need to implement these (voluntary) standards; whether the standards should be split for different age groups within the 2-17 range.

- Following the consultation period, the IWG will prepare a report to Congress.

Next Steps:
WFA (and the EU Pledge secretariat) are liaising very closely with the CBBB and Ad Standards Canada, who run the US and Canadian pledges respectively, by way of regular conference calls. Given the likely global impact of US IWG guidelines on marketing, the global food industry has a significant stake in their development. WFA will draw on European and global learnings in order to support CBBB in their submissions, particularly in relation to the technical implementation of the guidelines.

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