Companies to limit youth junk food ads

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A group of the nation’s largest food and beverage companies yesterday pledged to use nutrition standards when advertising to children under the age of 12 to decrease the number of overweight youth.

Some of the new nutrition rules already are being practiced,while some will not be in place until next year. Eleven companies are acting on advertising recommendations made by the Federal Trade Commission last year.

The FTC held an event yesterday to allow the companies to update their progress on the nutritional guidelines. The companies setting new dietary advertising formats, including Campbell Soup Co., General Mills Inc. and Kraft Food Inc., make up two-thirds of the television food ads directed to children.

“Responsible, industry-generated action and effective self-regulation are critical to addressing the national problem of childhood obesity,” FTC Chairman Deborah Majoras said. “The FTC plans to monitor industry efforts closely, and we expect to see real improvements.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 16 percent of the nation’s children and teenagers are overweight, which can lead to diseases such as Type 2 diabetes. In the last several years, health officials have repeatedly warned that food ads aimed at children are a factor in the rising number of overweight children.

Some countries have banned advertising of nutritionally questionable food to children, and some members of Congress have suggested that federal regulation may be needed. In response to the recent buildup of scrutiny over advertising practices, the food industry has promised to bolster its own self-regulation, partlyto head off federal intervention.

Although all the new marketing rules are targeted to children under 12 years old, the self-imposed standards differ from company to company.

For instance, McDonald’s Corp. announced that beginning in January 2008, it will advertise only two types of Happy Meals to children younger than 12: one with four Chicken McNuggets, apples and low-fat milk, and one with a hamburger, apples and milk. General Mills decided it will advertise only products with 12 grams of sugar or less per serving to children under 12 years old.

And, while General Mills will no longer advertise the popular Trix cereal to children 12 years and under, it will continue to market Cocoa Puffs, which has one less gram of sugar per serving, to all age groups, including the 12 and unders.

“There is modest but tangible change in these announcements,” said Vicky Rideout, vice president and director of the program for the study of entertainment media and health at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “There is also a need for more companies to get involved.”

Seven companies no longer will use licensed characters, such as SpongeBob SquarePants, if the products do not meet specific nutritional criteria. For Kellogg Co., the nutrition standard for licensed characters will apply to about half of the products that the company currently markets to children, including Fruit Loops and Apple Jacks cereals and Pop-Tarts.

General Mills will begin using the SpongeBob cartoon only on packaging for frozen vegetables within the month, said spokeswoman Chris Shea.

Meanwhile, PepsiCo, which owns popular brands such as Frito-Lay, Quaker Foods and the Pepsi and Gatorade drinks, will market only Baked Cheetos and Gatorade to children under 12.

Other companies taking action in response to the FTC’s recommendations include: Cadbury Adams USA; Coca-Cola; the Hershey Co.; Masterfoods USA, maker of candies Snickers, M&Ms; and Skittles; Mars Inc.; and Unilever United States, maker of the Country Crock butter brand.

The Council of Better Business Bureaus’ Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative will monitor and report on the companies’ compliance with their pledges, said Elain Kolish, director of the initiative at the Better Business Bureau.

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