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The New York Times this morning reports that, “trying to persuade critics the industry does not need government regulation, 11 big food companies, including McDonald’s, Campbell Soup and PepsiCo, have agreed to stop advertising to children under 12 products that do not meet certain nutritional standards. Some of the companies, like Coca-Cola, have already withdrawn all such commercials or are in the process of doing so. Others, like General Mills, said they would withdraw them over the next year or so, while a handful agreed to expand their self-imposed bans to radio, print and Internet advertising.

However, the conditions and loopholes inherent in the agreement may make some federal officials – not to mention parents – wonder if the deal is too little, too late.

For example, the Times reports, “while General Mills will no longer be advertising Trix to the 12-and-under crowd, it will continue to peddle Cocoa Puffs, which have one less gram of sugar per serving. And it will be able to continue advertising Trix on television shows and other media that are considered to cater to ‘families’ rather than just children.” This latter qualifier means that while certain products cannot be advertised on a program like “SpongeBob SquarePants,” which has an average audience of under a million kids between the ages of six and 11, they can be plugged on “American Idol,” which has an audience from that age group that is almost three times as large.

It remains to be seen whether the industry’s arguments will assuage regulators, who have threatened to enforce mandatory restrictions on how the food industry markets to children. Close to a billion dollars is spent each year marketing food products to kids under the age of 12, and so there are considerable stakes at risk in this ongoing debate.

The Times suggests that whether federal officials are convinced, there will be child advocacy groups that are likely to feel that the voluntary restrictions do not go far enough, and will continue their calls for federal intervention.

MNB reported nine days ago that a federal task force that was planning to announce mandated restrictions this month has now decided to postpone a release of its findings until September – a delay that will, at the very least, give the politicians involved, including Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), the presidential candidate, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who both helped form the task force, an opportunity to measure the political and cultural winds.
KC's View:
In my more cynical moments, I tend to think that the federal government doesn’t do the job it needs to be doing in more important areas, like assuring the safety of the food supply … and that there probably is very little appetite for dumping these new oversight responsibilities on government bureaucrats. I also tend to think that it ultimately my responsibility, as a parent, to decide what foods I bring into my house and allow my kids to eat.

That said, it is difficult – though not impossible – for parents to stand up against the marketing might of major corporations, which essentially spend millions of dollars to get kids to nag and annoy their parents about this product or that. So maybe all these restrictions do is create a more level playing field.

I’m guessing that these restrictions will remain voluntary for the time being…but if the companies backtrack in any way, or look for further loopholes, then we can all expect to see some sort of mandatory regulation.