The US food industry has won concessions on proposals to restrict advertising to children.

US Congressional committees met yesterday (12 October) to examine the work of a group of government agencies that was formed to devise voluntary guidelines on the marketing of food and drinks to children.

The Interagency Working Group, consisting of the Federal Trade Commission, the US department of agriculture , the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was briefed in 2009 to develop recommendations on standards for the advertising of food and drink to children.

The IWG ‘s proposals were published for consultation in April and were criticised by industry for being overly restrictive and unworkable. There has since been significant lobbying from food manufacturers against the plans and the industry’s cause has been taken up by a number of Republican members of Congress. 

At the congressional hearing, David Vladeck, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), said the IWG was “in the midst of making significant revisions to its preliminary proposal”, following comments received from stakeholders and an assessment of enhanced industry self-regulation.

He told the joint hearing of the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade and its Subcommittee on Health the revisions would “go a long way to address industry’s concerns”.

Since the IWG published its proposals, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), an industry self-regulatory programme, has unveiled enhanced self-regulatory standards. Vladeck said the anticipated IWG revisions would “share much in common with the new CFBAI uniform nutrition standards”.

Specifically, he said that, apart from some in-school activities, the FTC would not be including marketing to adolescents aged 12 to 17 within the standards. He said activities such as charitable events, community programmes, sporting events and theme parks also did not “warrant inclusion” and added the FTC does not contemplate recommending companies change trade dress elements of packaging or remove brand equity characters from products that do not meet nutrition recommendations.

Vladeck said the revised proposals were “substantially similar to the approach used currently by the vast majority of companies participating in the CFBAI and will cover all the most important aspects of children’s marketing without being unduly restrictive”.

Some Republican politicians have called for the work of the IWG to be suspended and have criticised the agencies for stepping outside their original brief.

In his opening statement, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton said the IWG had been asked to produce a study and a report to Congress. The IWG had in fact, Upton argued, made a “quasi-regulatory manoeuvre”. Upton added: “I am concerned about both the IWG’s recommendations and the manner in which they were produced going beyond the scope of their charge.”

However, some campaigners still supported the IWG’s proposals. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said the IWG’s proposed guidelines were “based on science and what’s best for children” and had “overwhelming support from health groups and researchers”.

Wootan said the CSPI expects there to be compromise but urged Congress to allow the IWG to finish its work.