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National Restaurant Association - NRA calls for withdrawal of proposed marketing-to-kids guidelines

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NRA calls for withdrawal of proposed marketing-to-kids guidelines

The National Restaurant Association last week called for a complete withdrawal of proposed federal principles that would set restrictive new guidelines under which restaurants could market food and beverages to children under 17.

Four federal agencies -- together called the "Interagency Working Group" -- in April proposed a sweeping set of "voluntary principles" to guide restaurants and other companies in marketing food and beverages to children and adolescents ages 2 to 17.

By broadly defining marketing and by setting stringent criteria for the types of foods and beverages that could be marketed to children, the principles could end up eliminating the marketing of healthful options to kids and adolescents at all, the NRA said in comments submitted July 14.

Although the Interagency Working Group's guidelines are voluntary, the NRA said it is concerned that the principles could eventually become mandatory. 

The members of the Working Group -- which included representatives from the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Federal Trade Commission -- hold broad rulemaking authority over restaurants and could eventually decide to make their voluntary principles mandatory. Or states or localities could use the principles as a model for regulating restaurants, the Association said.

The standards are "unduly strict and are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the restaurant industry," the NRA said in its comments.

"The proposed standards are unworkable for the industry and for consumers. They impose impractical nutritional standards that will significantly compromise the taste and palatability that consumers demand and underestimate the technical limitations of the industry."

The proposed definition of "marketing to children" is so broad that vast amounts of business activity could be classified as marketing to children, the NRA said. "Marketing" is defined under the voluntary guidelines to cover 20 categories of advertising, marketing and promotional activities. The guidelines could prohibit restaurants from sponsoring such programs as literacy and scholarship initiatives, children's charities and sport and recreational leagues.

The measures could require quickservice restaurants to serve children's meals in plain bags or boxes. Placemats that appeal to children may not be allowed unless a meal met strict standards.

The working group itself admitted that a large percentage of food products currently in the marketplace would not meet the voluntary principles -- and that reformulating products to meet the standards would change the products, cause technical challenges for industry, and make it harder for restaurants and food companies to appeal to consumers.

Congress ordered the Interagency Working Group report two years ago. Lawmakers asked the federal agencies to do a study and come up with standards for marketing food to children. The Working Group's recommendations are partly a report to Congress, and partly a proposal for industry self-regulation.

The NRA noted that the agencies failed to do a study as Congress ordered, and that the Working Group's recommendations are not based on sound science or even consistent with other federal nutrition policies, such as the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans or federal school-lunch standards. And there's no evidence to show that the new marketing principles will cause children and adolescents to eat healthier foods or lose weight, the NRA argued.

The NRA said the agencies should have followed a similar process to other rulemakings -- which require agencies to look at alternatives, provide a reasoned basis grounded in good science for any proposals, justify costs and consider the impact on small entities.

The NRA pointed out that NRA members have taken and continue to take meaningful steps to address the rise in obesity -- significantly expanding the number of high-quality, nutritious, and tasty meal options available to children and their parents, including the menu items recently announced in the NRA's new Kids LiveWell program.

"The proposed principles ... do not meet the request by Congress, are unworkable, and should be permanently withdrawn,” the NRA said. “ There are many government, industry and third-party initiatives that warrant our collective attention and support for reversing the trends in childhood obesity. The restaurant industry will continue to lead and support well-designed efforts to improve the diets of children and adolescents through healthful, diverse and enjoyable options."  

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