Congress Delays Guidelines to Limit Junk Food Marketing to Children

One of the 29,000 public comments in response to food marketing guideline proposal submitted to the federal government.

Scan of one of the 29,000 public comments in response to food marketing guideline proposal submitted to the federal government.

Score another round for junk food marketing. Just weeks after Congress turned back US Department of Agriculture efforts to make the school lunch program more healthful, today Congress delayed attempts at finalizing voluntary guidelines for food marketing to children.

Some background — a year and a half ago, the Obama administration set in motion an effort to establish guidelines around the kinds of foods and drinks that can be marketed to children. The effort was to be voluntary, not regulatory, and the goal was to help combat childhood obesity, now hovering around 20 percent for six to 19-year-olds. But, not surprisingly, the food and beverage industry has been fighting hard against the proposal. Today, public health advocates were set back when Congress asked for a cost/benefit analysis of the proposed guidelines.

“What’s frustrating here is that Congress listened to industry instead of parents and the American public.”

As The Washington Post reports, the cost-benefit requirement is buried in the huge spending bill Congress was debating today, the omnibus bill needed to keep the federal government running.

The administration’s proposal aims to tackle childhood obesity by having the industry market to children only those foods and drinks that make a “meaningful contribution” to a healthful diet and limit sodium, fats and added sugars. Foods that do not meet the guidelines could not be advertised to children.
The administration has stressed repeatedly that the plan is voluntary and meant to serve only as a guideline. But the industry says the initiative amounts to a backdoor regulation that will in effect wipe out advertising to children, eliminate millions of jobs and infringe on commercial free speech.

The spending bill rider bars the Federal Trade Commission, the lead agency on the food marketing initiative, from spending money on finalizing the proposal until the agency and its partners comply with an executive order signed in January by President Obama.

But the President’s executive order is about regulations, not voluntary efforts. Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest pointed out in a statement today, “There is no cost associated with something that is totally voluntary.”

Lori Dorfman, co-chair of the Food Marketing Workgroup, a national coalition of organizations and experts in support of the guideline, said from her office in Berkeley today that she was “bitterly disappointed” by the Congressional roadblock. “What’s frustrating here,” she continued, “is that Congress listened to industry instead of parents and the American public.”

And the public had weighed in; 29,000 people responded to the request for public comment with the overwhelming majority reportedly [PDF] favoring the guidelines. “I read a lot of those comments,” Dorfman said, “some were hand written pleas from parents, saying ‘please help us.’ Those pleas have been ignored.”

In her statement, Margo Wootan also registered her dismay and pointed to the money the food and beverage industry has spent lobbying Congress this year. “First Congress declared pizza a vegetable; now it defends companies’ ability to market Froot Loops as healthy for children. This Congress has quite the nutrition track record. Too bad kids don’t have their own PAC [political action committee], or $37 million in lobbying clout.”

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