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Changes vowed in pitching food to kids

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Kai Ryssdal: The Federal Trade Commission heard today from food companies that market to kids. And the mere mention of government regulation prompted those companies to crack down on themselves. Marketplace’s Janet Babin reports now from North Carolina Public Radio.

Janet Babin: An all-time favorite kid cereal, still beloved by many adults, is Captain Crunch. General Mills even has a website that features interactive games with the chunky Captain:

Captain Crunch: Ready . . . crunchitize!

But under the new self-imposed industry rules, the Captain’s website will be shuttered. Eleven companies have pledged to limit junk food ads to kids under 12. Pepsico, maker of Lays and Cheetos, will stop using characters in TV ads unless they’re touting a healthy product. And McDonalds will only promote Happy Meals that weigh in under 600 calories.

Is that even possible?

Mary Engle: That’s a four-piece chicken McNuggets, plus Apple Dippers and low-fat white milk, comes to 375 calories.

Mary Engle is with the FTC. She says the agency’s encouraged by the industry’s initiatives.

Analyst Matthew Reilly with Morningstar says these food titans do fear government regulation. But the real reason for the self-imposed limits is PR:

Matthew Reilly: They want to be seen as really caring about their customers, not pushing junk food on kids.

Reilly says these companies dominate distribution, so they’re gonna sell products despite the ad limits.

That’s why ad critic Jean Kilbourne is calling for Congress to step up:

Jean Kilbourne: What the government needs are uniform guidelines and oversight from a government agency that has real authority. And that’s difficult to do when industries gives so much money to politicians.

The FTC will work up a report on today’s hearing and present it to Congress early next year.

I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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