by Marion Nestle
Oct 10 2011

Rumor alert: White House backing off from standards for food marketing?

Sometimes when I hear rumors that I can’t corroborate, I keep fingers crossed that they aren’t true.  Here’s one.

Rumors say that the White House has caved in to food, beverage and advertising lobbying groups on the nutrition standards for food marketing to children developed by the Interagency Working Group (IWG).

Recall: the IWG’s members—the FDA, FTC, USDA, and CDC–produced recommendations for nutrition standards for marketing foods to kids (see previous posts).

The food and beverage industries think that if the standards are adopted, they will have to abide by them, thereby losing sales.  They do not want restrictions on how, when, and where they advertise their products to kids.

Rumors say that the FTC—the agency that regulates food advertising—is being pressed by the White House to back off.

Rumors say the FTC is withdrawing the proposedstandards for teens except for some in-school marketing, and that the FTC’s explanation is that  “to be successful in this endeavor food companies must be given leeway to shape an approach that will promote children’s health, without being overly burdensome on industry….”

Could the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s  October 12 hearings on the standards have anything to do wth this?   Or the tough memo prepared by committee staff in preparation for the hearing?  The staff memo raises highly critical questions about the FTC and the IWG report.

The proposed standards, please recall, are voluntary.  And I didn’t think they were all that restrictive (see previous post).

But if the rumors are true, even this administration can’t do anything to limit  food marketing to kids and we are right back where we were in 1979, the last time the FTC tried to do so.

Please say it isn’t so.

Addition 1: FTC has now posted its prepared testimony: “As a result of the many comments we received from various stakeholders…the Working Group is in the midst of making significant revisions to its preliminary proposal. The anticipated revisions go a long way to address industry’s concerns.”

It gets worse:

The Commission staff believes that this approach resolves many of the flashpoints that generated strongest industry concern.

For instance, FTC staff has determined that, with the exception of certain in-school marketing activities, it is not necessary to encompass adolescents ages 12 to 17 within the scope of covered marketing….In addition, the FTC staff believes that philanthropic activities, charitable events, community programs, entertainment and sporting events, and theme parks are, for the most part, directed to families or the general community and do not warrant inclusion with more specifically child-directed marketing.

Moreover, it would be counterproductive to discourage food company sponsorship of these activities to the extent that many benefit children’s health by promoting physical activity.

Finally, the Commission staff does not contemplate recommending that food companies change the trade dress elements of their packaging or remove brand equity characters from food products that don’t meet nutrition recommendations.

Addition 2:  Margo Wootan of CSPI provides a copy of her written testimony for the IWG .

Addition 3: Here’s the written statement of Dale Kunkel of the University of Arizona.

Addition 4, October 11Adweek headlines its story on this fiasco, “Ronald McDonald, Toucan Sam to get pardon from feds?”

  • AverageFarmer

    The Obama Administration has not shown much follow through in many areas related to food and ag. In the spring of 2010, farmers put their livelihoods on the line to testify at dairy antitrust hearings. The hearings concluded and the Department of Justice has not been heard from since. We just want a dairy market that functions freely.
    The FDA has allowed more and more junk to be labeled as “dairy” when in fact it is full of fillers and non-dairy junk. This problem for “real food” has accelerated under Obama.
    And, Country of Origin labeling has gone nowhere for us in dairy despite earlier promises to “look into it.”
    Why would you think anything related to food for children will be any different?

  • DennisP

    I agree with Average Farmer. The Obama administration is mainly a hot air balloon that collapses as soon as some special interest or Republican group pricks it. There are hundreds of agency appointments not yet filled because of Senate GOP opposition; has Obama fought for any of them? Has he really fought – actually engaged in down and hard conflict – for any of his proposals in the public interest? I think the FTC is prototypical of Obama. As is Michelle Obama’s wish to work WITH the food industry, instead of realizing that their interests are directly opposed to her anti-obesity attitude.

  • Gerhardt

    In betters days the FTC would have writen things like: The tying of charities with junk-food advertising is a net negative to society because kids may consider the junk food that is bad to them to be beneficial. Not to mention, also figured out that “family focused” junk-food ads are just another vehicle for cross-selling to children.

    The last comment about continuing to allow the use of “brand equity characters” in junk-food promotion (read: cartoon characters) borders in the subservient. All in all, the FTC letter is so crass and far away from considering the public interest that it almost seems like the staff were handed talking points and may be even job offers by private interests. Joe Camel is back.

  • Anthro

    I concur with all three comments. It is shocking and sad that the Obama administration is taking this direction. I’ve tried so hard to support an administration that has so much invective constantly hurled at it, but if the WH cannot stand for the best interests of children (teens who are extremely prone to peer pressure should not be excluded), then we may as well dismantle all the agencies that are being overridden by this kind of industry pressure. What is the point of the small steps taken by Mrs. Obama if this is the end result?

  • Emily

    As the government abdicates its responsibilities, let’s hope there are more concerned citizens out there like Ron English who are willing to do their part. A nice bowl of ‘sugar frosted fat’ anyone?

  • Ugh. I don’t know what happened to that change we could count on, but the president has so far disappointed on nearly every count. This is another sad instance in a long line of disappointments. May the peaceful #OccupyWallStreet movement grow and prevail.

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