Government to food industry: Make your food healthier or quit targeting children

Oh Fred, what are we going to do with you? In the 1960’s Mr. Flinstone was hawking cigarettes, and today he’s pushing sugar cereal. But if the Federal Trade Commission has anything to say about it, Fred’s spokesman days could be over.

As implied in new voluntary guidelines, lawmakers are asking food makers and marketers to either start making healthier food for kids, or stop blatantly advertising to them. Here’s an excerpt from FTC’s press release:

“Children are strongly influenced by the foods they see advertised on television and elsewhere. Creating a food marketing environment that supports, rather than undermines, the efforts of parents to encourage healthy eating among children will have a significant impact on reducing the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “These new Principles will help food and beverage companies use their creativity and resources to strengthen parents’ efforts to encourage their children to make healthy choices.”

“As a parent and grandparent, I know the power advertising and marketing can have on kids, and my hope is that the food industry will embrace these voluntary principles and apply them so parents can make informed decisions about the foods they feed their children,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The guidelines don’t single out any particular style of advertising, like TV commercials or ad themed websites, but the message is clear: If you want to continue using kid friendly advertising you should start making your products more kid-friendly, (re: less harmful to their health.)

“We can tell our patients all day long to make healthy food choices, but when they are constantly bombarded by these images it can be very hard for them to follow the recommendations,” says Emily Israel, PhD, associate director of Children’s Optimal Weight for Life clinic. “By using these characters in ads, it’s a clear indication food companies are directly targeting children. I feel major policy and social changes are in need to protect them, and these guidelines are a big step forward.”

So, is Fred destined to go the route of Joe Camel and Spuds Mackenzie? It’s far too early to say, especially considering that these guidelines are 100 percent voluntary. Still, the pressure to comply is likely to be strong, especially among food industry giants, which could lead to less ads, and better food, for our kids down the road. Yabba dabba do, indeed.