FTC Attempt to Limit Food Marketing to Kids Loses Steam

Agency Chairman Says It's 'Time to Move On'

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Already on life support, the effort by the federal government to severely limit the marketing of certain foods to children appears to be pretty much dead.

In recent testimony to Congress, Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz said that "it's probably time to move on" from the effort, which food advertisers have criticized as draconian. Mr. Leibowitz made himself even more clear last week, saying in a letter in The Wall Street Journal that "the commission does not support legislation restricting food advertising to children."

According to Mr. Leibowitz, this is not a new position. "I have never called for -- or even "hinted' support for --congressional action on food advertising to children, nor have my bipartisan colleagues," he wrote. The government's effort, called Interagency Working Group, was always aimed at creating "voluntary guidelines." Though "voluntary" they would, among other things, allow only foods with low levels of sodium, fat and sugar to be marketed to children.

Industry leaders have blasted the proposal as "backdoor regulation." The fear is that the government would use its other levers of power to punish marketers that don't meet the voluntary standards.

Advertisers welcomed Mr. Leibowitz's statement that the commission "does not support legislation."

"Chairman Leibowitz had made some similar statements ... but we think this is the most definitive and public statement that we are aware that he has made," Dan Jaffe, exec VP-government relations for the Association of National Advertisers, told Ad Age in an email.

Susan Linn, director at the Center for a Commercial-Free Childhood, called the move troubling. "Unless we regulate food marketing to children, then we are never going to solve the obesity crisis," she said.

The Interagency Working Group includes the FTC, Food and Drug Administration, Agriculture Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The effort had been stunted by language in a bill passed by Congress requiring a cost-benefit analysis to determine how many food-industry and marketing-related jobs would be lost because of the guidelines.

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