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At a time when concerns about a crisis of obesity are running high, advertising food to children can be a minefield. And a number of major food and beverage companies are trying to show that they are treading lightly.

On Wednesday, the self-regulatory industry group Advertising Standards Canada announced changes to the Canadian Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. The voluntary program places limits on how companies such as Coca-Cola Co., Kellogg Co. and others promote their products to children.

The participants have either committed not to do any advertising that is targeted "primarily" at kids under the age of twelve, or to advertise to them only under the condition that they promote "better-for-you" products. Now, the program is specifying what that means.

A newly specific set of nutrition criteria, to be implemented at the end of next year, will affect about 35 per cent of the products that participants currently advertise. They fall under eight product categories: milk and alternatives; grain; soups; meat and alternatives; vegetables and fruit; occasional snacks; mixed dishes; and meals on the go.

The new rules specify maximum calories for each of the categories, as well as limits on saturated and trans fats, sodium and sugar. The ASC says these new criteria are based on recommendations from Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and the U.S. Institute of Medicine.

The deadline to comply with the changes will be Dec. 31, 2015.

Until  now, requirements for "nutrition criteria per serving size for products advertised directly to children under 12" varied somewhat by advertiser. For example, as of 2013, Burger King committed to a maximum of 560 calories per serving, 10 per cent of calories from saturated fat, 30 per cent of calories from overall fats, 600 mg of sodium and 10 per cent of calories from added sugars. (Since last year, Burger King is no longer a participant in the program.) McDonald's committed to similar limits for calories and fats, and a maximum of 25 per cent "total energy from added sugars." General Mills has limits on its cereals and snacks, and a second set of limits for side and main dishes, as well as minimum requirements for vitamins and minerals.

The new standards will provide unified criteria for each product category.

On Wednesday, the ASC also released its latest annual compliance report on the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.

The ASC has said before that it is happy with advertisers' compliance, and this year was no exception. Canadians submitted 108 complaints to ASC in 2013 about food advertising, but "none involved concerns about participant compliance with CAI commitments," according to the report.

In its own compliance checks, ASC found no violations of the commitments. Concerns have been raised in the past about advertisers using online games to push candy, soda and other products to kids. ASC reviewed online games as well and said it did not find anything that broke the rules.

The Participants

According to the ASC report, the following advertisers have signed on to the initiative.

Those who committed not to do any advertising "directed primarily to children under 12 years of age" (i.e. where children make up at least 35 per cent of the audience. Some advertisers have chosen stricter audience limits, as low as 25 per cent.):

Coca-Cola Ltd.
Ferrero Canada Ltd.
Hershey Canada Inc.
Janes Family Foods Ltd. *
Kraft Canada Inc. **
Mars Canada Inc.
McCain Foods (Canada)
Mondelez Canada Nestlé Canada Inc.
PepsiCo Canada ULC
Unilever Canada Inc.
Weston Bakeries Ltd.

Those who committed to advertise only "approved products" to children (30 to 35 per cent of the audience or more are children):

Burger King Canada
Campbell Co. of Canada
Danone Inc.
General Mills Canada Corp.
Kellogg Canada Inc.
McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Ltd.
Parmalat Canada Post Foods Canada Inc.

*As of 2013. Burger King and Janes are no longer members of the program.
**As of 2013. Kraft now falls under the second category.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story reported examples of nutritional criteria were new. In fact, they were last year's requirements. This version has been corrected.

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