WASHINGTON — The Federal Trade Commission says it is taking another look at guidelines designed to limit the marketing of unhealthy foods to kids after Congress delayed the effort.
The voluntary guidelines proposed by the government earlier this year set maximum levels of fat, sugars and sodium and ask food companies not to market foods that go beyond those levels to children ages 2 through 17. That could limit colorful cartoon characters on cereal packages, television ads and product websites.
The food industry, backed by Republicans in Congress, has lobbied aggressively against the guidelines. They say they are too broad and would limit marketing of almost all of the nation's favorite foods, including yogurts and many children's cereals. Though the guidelines would be voluntary, food companies say they fear the government will retaliate against them if they don't go along.
The delay, which would require the government to study the costs of the effort before releasing final guidelines, is buried in a massive spending bill to pay for the government's daily operations. The House passed the measure on Friday with expected Senate approval over the weekend.
In a statement Friday, Cecelia Prewett of the FTC said that "Congress has clearly changed its mind" about the marketing guidelines and that the government "will be assessing its language and working toward congressional intent." Congress originally asked for the guidelines in a 2009 spending bill to help combat childhood obesity.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa., who led the 2009 effort, said Friday that the delay "is a huge loss for our nation's children, who will continue to be bombarded with ads for junk food and sugary soft drinks."
The agencies in charge of the effort — including the FTC, the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — have already backed off the original guidelines proposed in April, which industry argued were too strict. David Vladeck, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said at a congressional hearing in October that the government would likely soften the guidelines.
Among the changes he suggested were narrowing children targeted to 2- to 11-year-olds instead of up to age 17 and allowing marketing of the unhealthier foods at fundraisers and sporting events. Vladeck also said his agency would not recommend that companies change packaging or remove brand characters from food products that don't qualify, as was originally suggested.
Vladeck has called the idea that the voluntary guidelines would become mandatory "a myth."
The industry came out with its own guidelines over the summer, proposing to limit advertising on some foods for children but adjusting the criteria. Though the industry proposal is more lenient than the government plan, the effort has won praise from federal officials, who said they will consider it as they finalize the guidelines.