Are Goldfish crackers junk food?
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Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Goldfish crackers are a point of contention between regulators and the food industry as they address issues of nutrition and marketing.
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Jin Lee/Bloomberg News
Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, said the food industry's advertising initiative was a "significant advance."
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Under proposed new nutritional guidelines, the federal government says yes, and it does not want food like the crackers advertised to children because they contain too much saturated fat and salt and are made from white flour.
But food makers say the fish-shaped treats, made by Campbell Soup’s Pepperidge Farm division, belong on a list of healthful foods that are fine to market to children.
The seeming tempest in a fishbowl is typical of a growing tug of war as government and public health advocates tighten pressure on the food industry to fight childhood obesity by making and marketing healthier products.
In the latest example, a group of food manufacturers and restaurant chains announced Thursday that they would revise a set of voluntary standards for cereals, snacks and other foods that they market to children so as to reduce sugars, fats and other ingredients that are unhealthful in large amounts.
But the new guidelines are modest and would not require food makers to change much — two-thirds of the products the companies now advertise already meet them. And the levels fall far short of nutritional standards proposed by regulators.
Another industry initiative, announced a day earlier, is aimed at improving the number of healthful offerings on children’s menus at restaurants. Again, the plan set such easy targets that virtually all cooperating restaurant chains were already meeting the standard.
Children’s health advocates say the industry’s moves are meant to head off government action.
“They’re willing to move, but not very far,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group. “This is a typical industry tactic of a pre-emptive move. Rather than have government come up with the standards for food marketing, they want to develop them themselves.”
But the industry actions drew at least qualified praise from regulators, who said they were encouraged that companies were willing to take steps in the right direction.
“The industry’s uniform standards are a significant advance and exactly the type of initiative the commission had in mind when we started pushing for self-regulation more than five years ago,” Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, said in a statement about the advertising initiative.
The marketing standards announced on Thursday are part of an industry program called the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which has participants like Campbell, Burger King, McDonald’s, Kraft Foods, PepsiCo and Kellogg.
“We tried to find a way that pushed the envelope, that made the standards stricter while also finding something that was realistic,” said Elaine D. Kolish, director of the industry initiative, which is operated by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. The new standards are set to go into effect in January 2014, giving companies time to reformulate products to meet the criteria.
The standards would apply equally to all companies that participate. That would be an improvement over the current initiative, which was often criticized because it allowed each company to create its own nutritional standards for deciding which foods were healthful enough to advertise to children. Sugary cereals like Kellogg’s Apple Jacks made the cut, as did salty foods like ConAgra’s Chef Boyardee canned pastas.
In response to such inconsistencies, Congress asked the Federal Trade Commission to coordinate with several other agencies to recommend an objective set of criteria that could be held up as a voluntary standard for industry.
A preliminary version of the commission’s proposal was released in April, and it was more strict than the industry initiative. The commission proposed a single standard for all companies to follow, with rigid limits on less healthful ingredients and requirements that food advertised to children be heavy on nutritious ingredients like fresh fruit, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.
The agency did not name specific products but said that a large percentage of the foods now advertised to children would not qualify under the F.T.C. proposal.
Thursday was the final day for the industry and the public to submit comments on the federal proposal. The commission said that it would consider the comments while preparing a final version of its recommendations that it expected to submit to Congress by the end of the year. Regulators say they hope that industry embraces the guidelines voluntarily and there are no plans to make them enforceable through legislation or formal regulation.
Under the restaurant menu initiative announced Wednesday, participating chains agreed to include at least one children’s meal that had no more than 600 calories and met other nutritional requirements. Health advocates said the move would have little effect because other unhealthful offerings would remain on the menu.
The food industry characterized both initiatives as significant progress.
When announcing the advertising initiative on Thursday, Ms. Kolish said that a third of the foods now advertised to children by the participating companies would not meet the new guidelines. She declined to give examples because she said she did not want to make any of the products look bad.
It appeared that many products would need to be tweaked just slightly to get in under the new bar.
For example, the new industry standard for sugar in cereal would drop to 10 grams per serving, from 12 grams under the old standard. The proposed government standard would be 8 grams per serving. Many cereals contain 10 to 12 grams of sugar.
And the Goldfish crackers would not have to change at all.
Juli Mandel Sloves, a spokeswoman for Campbell, said the company had already improved its Goldfish recipe over the years to make the product healthier. She said it took steps like eliminating trans fats, reducing the salt content in some versions, eliminating artificial colorings and introducing a whole-wheat version (although most are still made with white flour).
“We are looking at marketing products that are wholesome and that we know can meet the criteria that have been established” by the industry marketing initiative, Ms. Sloves said. But she said it did not make sense to go so far in reformulating a product that children would not eat it.
“If people don’t enjoy their food, they don’t eat it and they make other choices,” she said.