The Federal Trade Commission has made good on threats to limit how fatty and salt-laden foods are marketed – particularly to children. That spells bad news for a number of large American companies, including McDonald’s (MCD) to Yum (YUM) to Kraft (KFT).
On Thursday, the FTC announced it was seeking input on proposed voluntary principles for marketing food to children. In a press release, the agency stated that “In an effort to combat childhood obesity – the most serious health crisis facing today’s youth – a working group of four federal agencies” released for public comment “a set of proposed voluntary principles that can be used by industry as a guide for marketing food to children.”
The key word is “voluntary.” Fast food and food manufacturers may find pressure to change the way they market their products is so severe that they have little choice.
Government data says that cookies, cakes, pizza, soda, energy and sports drinks are the top sources of calories in the diets of children 2 through 18. Meanwhile, chips and french fries comprise half of all the vegetables kids eat.
The debate may eventually pit two principles against one another. The first is the question of what freedom companies should continue to have to market products and what rights people will have to buy those products even if they can create long-term harm. The government’s regulation of the tobacco industry shows that it can have a powerful say in the advertising of “dangerous” products if it says it can. And, that is the other side of the issue of principles. Can the government impose its will on companies that it believes sell dangerous products?
The government’s plans may be overreaching. But as long as the FTC and its sister agencies continue to claim that “childhood obesity is the nation’s most serious health threat,” food companies face a tough battle ahead.