UPDATE 1-US FTC weakens proposals for food ads to children

Tue Oct 11, 2011 8:27pm EDT

* Principles drop affected age to 11 and under

* Characters such as Ronald McDonald get reprieve

* Ads to general audiences exempted

* Ads to children 2 to 11 broadly limited

WASHINGTON, Oct 11 (Reuters) - A government regulator that is part of a working group concerned about junk food ads aimed at children will announce on Wednesday it is backing off some proposals for voluntary food marketing guidelines.

The interagency working group (IWG), made up of the Federal Trade Commission, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said in April companies should voluntarily end all food advertising to children unless they were promoting healthy fare, such as whole grains, fresh fruits or vegetables.

Under that proposal, salty, fatty or very sweet foods or foods with trans fats would no longer be advertised to children aged 17 or under.

But David Vladeck, head of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, is expected to testify to a congressional committee on Wednesday that the IWG made major changes in its proposals.

The agency's apparent change of heart comes amid fierce opposition to any attempts at advertising curbs by the deep-pocketed food, beverage and restaurant industries, which are under increasing scrutiny for their contribution to fast-rising U.S. childhood obesity rates.

Among the most dramatic changes is FTC's decision to exempt older children from the guidelines.

"FTC staff has determined that, with the exception of certain in-school marketing activities, it is not necessary to encompass adolescents ages 12 to 17 within the scope of the covered marketing," according to Vladeck's written testimony, which was available on the House Energy and Commerce Committee's website prior to the hearing.

In the testimony, the FTC excluded advertising aimed at a general audience and advertising that was part of charitable or community events.

It also said it would not recommend banning clowns and cartoon characters -- think Ronald McDonald and SpongeBob SquarePants -- used to advertise unhealthy foods.

Advertisers, who also are lobbying against the proposals, welcomed the changes, but said industry should be left to regulate itself.

"I think the best thing that they can do is to withdraw the proposal and endorse the (industry-supported) Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative," said Dan Jaffe, vice president of the Association of National Advertisers.

Jaffe was referring to an effort that sets voluntary standards such as barring added sugars in juices and limiting flavored milk to 24 grams of sugar. Its participants include McDonald's Inc , General Mills Inc and PepsiCo Inc .

"We don't see why the government really needs to step into this area," Jaffe said.

DAVID VS GOLIATH

Media companies, restaurants, packaged food makers and beverage sellers formed the Sensible Food Policy Coalition to fight the IWG recommendations. Those companies wield far more political influence in Washington than the anti-obesity groups that are supporting curbs on advertising.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said she was concerned that Congress, which oversees the agencies in the IWG, would press for the advertising principles to be scrapped.

"The thing that worries me the most is that the Congress is not asking for little tweaks to the standards ... they're asking the agencies to kill the whole thing," she said. "The overwhelming majority of advertising to kids is for unhealthy food, about 80 percent."

Wootan's concerns are not unfounded.

A background memo prepared for the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee indicated some hostility to the IWG's proposed marketing guidelines. Lawmakers sent a letter to the agencies in September asking questions such as what evidence there is that junk food advertisements are linked to obesity and what the proposal would cost, in terms of ad revenue and jobs.

Representatives from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents packaged food makers, and the National Restaurant Association each said the IWG should first study the costs and benefits of any marketing restrictions before issuing recommendations.

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 eat healthier food and exercise more.

Concern about obesity rates prompted the campaign. About 17 percent of U.S. children aged 2-19 are obese, according to data on the CDC website. Nearly one in three U.S. children are overweight and rates are rising quickly.