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Tony the Tiger, breathe easy — federal regulators are watering down proposed “voluntary” industry guidelines restricting foods marketed to children. David Vladeck, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, told members of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade today that “brand equity characters” like Kellogg’s iconic tiger would no longer run afoul of the guidelines. Promotions linked to charities, sporting events and theme parks would be exempt as well, as would most marketing directed at adolescents ages 12 to 17. “The commission is making a real effort to avoid pulling in marketing activities that are family-oriented or directed to a more general audience and to limit the revised approach to marketing that more exclusively targets the child only,” Vladeck said. “The commission staff believes that this approach resolves many of the flashpoints that generated strongest industry concern.” In April, four agencies — the FTC, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (dubbed the “Interagency Working Group”) — came up with a draft plan calling for companies to voluntarily cease all marketing efforts directed at children for “unhealthy” food and drinks, with the goal of reducing childhood obesity. The agencies received 29,000 comments (most were form letters) — and some serious pushback from the food industry, which complained the standards were unworkable, costly, and would run afoul of First Amendment protections for commercial speech. They also questioned its underlying premise that a marketing ban on unhealthy food would result in thinner children. The proposed revisions to the draft guideline that Vladeck announced today (which he cautioned have not been formally approved by the other agencies) would exempt adolescents with the exception of certain in-school marketing activities. “It is often difficult to distinguish marketing designed to appeal to this age group from marketing directed to a general or adult audience,” Vladeck noted. “In addition, the FTC staff believes that philanthropic activities, charitable events, community programs, entertainment and sporting events, and theme parks are, for the most part, directed to families or the general community and do not warrant inclusion with more specifically child-directed marketing,” he said in written testimony. Also no longer barred — in-store displays and packaging of seasonal or holiday confections. But this did little to appease indignant Republicans in Congress. The agencies “unilaterally proposed guidelines that were so extreme that they would prevent the marketing to children of foods that most parents consider a win if their kids eat — such as yogurt, cheese sticks, and even soup,” said Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who chairs the Commerce Committee. “This appears to be a first step toward Uncle Sam planning our family meals.” “It’s my job as a parent to ensure my kids eat healthy food, not the government’s,” said Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas). “Big government is no replacement for parental involvement,” agreed Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). “We need to rein in Washington’s culture of senseless regulation,” added Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) was one of the few to defend the agencies’ efforts, pointing out that Congress itself in a 2009 appropriations bill directed the agencies to study the issue. “This is a serious health matter. One-third of kids are overweight,” Waxman said. “This is a way for the food industry to do something on a voluntary basis to educate the public. I cannot believe this hearing….They came out with a preliminary report and our committee is going crazy.” Jenna Greene can be contacted at [email protected].

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