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Food Industry Could Pay for Slow Progress in Marketing to Kids

The Grocery Manufacturer's Association is furious that the government is involving itself in deciding what should or shouldn't be advertised to children. At the request of Congress, a working group of regulators from different government agencies have put together a list of guidelines, and though the recommendations aren't binding, the GMA is not pleased -- especially since "children" is apparently defined as anyone under 18.

Furthermore, if industry does not comply with these voluntary guidelines, there's the distinct threat that, as the Federal Trade Commission's David Vladeck put it, "Congress may decide for all of us."

Companies have been working hard to improve their image on the issue of healthful children's products; the question is whether they've been working hard enough to actually improve their practices.

It all depends where one sets the bar. For example, the industry-led, self-regulating Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative acknowledges that 80 percent of food advertising on Nickelodeon is for junk food, but that's down from 90 percent in 2005.

Furthermore, the Coca-Cola Company, Mars, Cadbury and Hershey have all agreed not to target any advertising at children, while Burger King, McDonald's, General Mills and others have pledged to focus their children's advertising on healthier options. And there's been a big push towards reducing both sugar and sodium from various products.

But critics say self-regulation is insufficient. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the 10 percent Nickelodeon improvement was "modest and not quite statistically significant." And a new study on kids' advertising in general showed that junk food still makes up 70 percent of the food products advertised.

The real issue is what qualifies as junk food. General Mills has cut the sugar content of Lucky Charms and other leading cereals down to 11 grams, and plans to reduce it even more in the near future. McDonald's includes apple slices and skim milk with its kids meals. Does that make Lucky Charms and McDonald's hamburgers "healthy"? The Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative boasts that it's shown real progress in promoting "better-for-you" options, but "better" is not the same as "good." The question for industry is, will "better" be enough to stave off regulation?

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