WASHINGTON—Watch out, Dora the Explorer, Yoda and all you wacky, prehistoric critters from "Ice Age": The feds could be on your tails.
With childhood obesity soaring and an array of cereals, snacks and sodas plastered with images of kid-friendly characters, the Federal Trade Commission is taking steps to examine how manufacturers market to children.
A federal Institute of Medicine report said two years ago that the food industry spent $10 billion to $12 billion annually to reach children through the media, promotions, packaging and other means, often relying on popular cartoon characters. Last year, the institute concluded that the flood of junk-food ads was linked to growing waistlines.
But the advertising and grocery industries say their study found that ad spending aimed at children dropped from 1993 to 2003. They challenged whether the increase in childhood obesity could be blamed in part on advertising.
At Congress' request, the FTC is prepared to force about 50 food and beverage manufacturers and fast-food restaurant companies to fork over details on how much they spend on such marketing and how they do market.
An agency spokeswoman said the requests would be the equivalent of subpoenas.
The FTC has asked for public comments on its plan, which are due by Dec. 21. After taking the comments into account, the FTC will then send the plan to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review.
Some health and consumer watchdogs wonder how aggressively the FTC can regulate advertising directed at children. In 1980, under pressure from the industry, lawmakers stripped the FTC of its rule-making authority over such ads.
But amid growing concerns over childhood obesity, Congress asked the agency last year to begin studying the matter.
Watchdog and health groups hope that the incoming Congress will consider ending the 1980 restriction.
"This is a very high priority for us, and we're going to be doing a very rigorous study of the food marketing industry," said Mary Engel, the FTC's associate director for advertising practices. "We expect to be able to shine a light on industry practices."
Victoria Rideout, a vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation who's studied the issue, said the FTC inquiry could be an important step.
"Government agencies and policymakers have experienced a lot of frustration in trying to get information about what food companies are doing to advertise their products to kids," she said. "They can't get even basic facts."
But with childhood obesity now at 16 percent, more than three times higher than it was in 1980, pressure has been building on the food industry to curb marketing sugary, high-fat food to children.
The concern isn't limited to the United States. On Friday, the United Kingdom banned all junk-food advertising from all children's channels, children's programming and all programs that might appeal to children under 16.
Daniel Jaffe of the Association of National Advertisers said the FTC's investigation could be useful.
"We've always felt the advertising community does better when there is real data people can agree on rather than data that are best `guesstimates,'" he said.
Several food companies have responded to the mounting concern from parents, the medical community and Capitol Hill by offering healthier product lines. Some use cartoon icons such as SpongeBob SquarePants to hawk fresh fruit and other more nutritious offerings.
The Walt Disney Co. said last month that its characters would be used only to sell food that meets certain nutritional guidelines.
Ten major food and beverage manufacturers, responsible for more than two-thirds of the ads directed at children, pledged this past week to promote healthier foods or lifestyles in at least half of their ads.
Their voluntary guidelines were the product of the Council of Better Business Bureaus and the National Advertising Review Council.
"The initiative represents an innovative effort to promote healthier dietary choices and lifestyles to children," said Joan Bernstein, a former FTC consumer protection official who spearheaded the guidelines' development.
Reaction from outside the industry, though, was mixed. Michael Jacobson, the executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has championed a get-tough approach to junk-food ads, called the new guidelines "a joke."
Sugar-coated cereals are allowed to qualify as "healthy," he said on the group's Web site. Jacobson compared the industry's "healthy lifestyle message" to "Ronald McDonald pedaling a bike while peddling junk food."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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