Four government agencies, led by the Federal Trade Commission, have announced long-awaited guidelines for food and beverage advertising targeted at children.

Under the proposals released Thursday, the food industry would have five years to phase in the rules if it chooses to abide by them — the FTC says it wants food and advertising companies to voluntarily accept the standards.

If they do, by 2016 breakfast cereals, sodas, juices, snack foods, candy and other foods marketed to children under 17 would have to meet two basic principles:

1) The products should “make a meaningful contribution” to a healthful diet, and contain at least one of these food groups: fruit, vegetable, whole grain, fat-free or low-fat milk products, fish, extra lean meat or poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds, beans.

2)  The products should minimize contents that negatively impact health or weight. The key standards are:

• Saturated fat: 1 g or less per serving and 15 percent or less of calories

• Trans fat: 0 g per serving

• Added sugars: No more than 13 g of added sugars per serving

• Sodium: No more than 210 mg per serving (with additional reductions by 2021)

The government regulators acknowledge “the goals for the industry are ambitious” but said the proposed marketing standards are intended to “encourage stronger and more meaningful self-regulation.” Self-regulation by the food industry could help teach self control at home, supporting “parents’ efforts to get their kids to eat healthier foods.”

Although the FTC stressed that “the proposed principles are voluntary and do not call for government regulation of food marketing,” at least one ad industry group objected.

“Despite calling these proposals ‘voluntary,’ the government clearly is trying to place major pressure on the food, beverage and restaurant industries on what can and cannot be advertised,” the Association of National Advertisers said in a statement.

What could not be advertised to kids, if the standards were followed, might be products like white bread, Lunchables pr Pop-Tarts, some reports suggest.  According to the New York Times, the sugar requirement could restrict the marketing of Froot Loops and Cap’n Crunch cereals, while the sodium restriction might affect products like Chef Boyardee beef ravioli.

But food companies could rise to the challenge, the FTC suggested.  “The industry has the resources and creative know-how to encourage children to make better choices: 17 major companies are already reformulating foods to make them healthier and cutting back on their marketing of less healthy options to children,” it stated in its news release.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Association of National Advertisers used the timing of the FTC announcement to demonstrate that the food industry is already cutting back food ads targeted to children. 

The two groups released results of a study that showed the average number of food and beverage commercials viewed by kids 2 to 11 on children’s TV programming fell by 50 percent between 2004 and 2010. They also said that in recent years food and beverage manufacturers have reformulated more than 20,000 products to reduce calories, sodium, sugar and fat.

But the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the industry efforts have fallen short.

“A key weakness of the current self-regulatory approach to food marketing to children is that each company has its own strategically tailored standards,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at CSPI. “While overall the standards look fairly similar, many have loopholes, like weak or no sodium standards for fast-food companies and weak sugar standards for cereal marketers.”

According to CSPI research, from 2005 to 2009, ads on Nickelodeon for foods of poor nutritional quality decreased only slightly — from 88 percent to 79 percent of food ads.

“Companies’ policies aren’t making enough of a difference,” said Wootan. “If companies are serious about addressing marketing to children, they’ll agree to follow the proposed national marketing standards.”

The proposed standards were mandated by Congress, which in 2009 directed the FTC, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create an Interagency Working Group of nutrition, health and marketing experts to come up with the principles. 

The guidelines were expected to be issued by July 15 last year, and the long delay prompted speculation that the food industry was unhappy with the proposals. 

The marketing standards are now open to comment for 45 days, including a May 24 forum in Washington, D.C. where people can comment in person. The feedback will be considered by the the Interagency Working Group and the agencies before a final recommendation is submitted to Congress.

Copies of the document are available from the FTC’s website at and from the FTC’s Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20580. Call toll-free: 1-877-FTC-HELP.