September 14th, 2011

Republican House Leaders Call for Withdrawal of Food Marketing Guidelines

Broadcasting & Cable

House Republican leaders of the committees overseeing communications policy have asked government agencies to withdraw their food marketing guidelines, saying they were a shot in the dark based on insufficient information that could take down healthy foods in the process and have unanticipated negative affects on health and the economy.

“Under the circumstances, we believe that the IWG should withdraw the current proposal and start afresh, said the legislators, which included House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Mary Bono Mack (R-Tenn.), chair of the Commerce Subcommittee, and Lee Terry, vice chairman of the Communications Subcommittee. Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon was not on the letter, which a Federal Trade Commission spokesperson confirmed the agency had received, but had no comment on.

The circumstances, the legislators say, include that Congress told them to conduct a study and report back, while the legislators argue the guidelines were directed at industry and that rather than conduct a report, it issued guidelines and plans to review the public comments and adjust them if necessary, then send them to Congress. The guidelines would apply to broadcasting and cable programming.

The Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Food Marketed to Children (Working Group), comprising representatives from the FTC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the FDA, and the USDA, recommended the new tough, but voluntary, food marketing guidelines to kids and teens last April and the Federal Trade Commission put them out for comment.

Those would include requiring foods marketed to kids to contain at least one of a list of healthy ingredients--fruit, vegetable, whole grain, nuts, seeds--and contain limited amounts of nutrients “with negative impact on health or weight--including limits on saturated fats, trans fat, added sugars and sodium.

The goal is to have all food marketed to kids meeting that standard by 2016. The foods it is targeting for alterations include “breakfast cereals; snack foods; candy; dairy products; baked goods; carbonated beverages; fruit juice and non-carbonated beverages; prepared foods and meals; frozen and chilled deserts; and restaurant foods.”

The FTC concedes that the goals “are ambitious and would take time to put into place.

The legislators point to the IWG’s own admission that if fully implemented, a large percentage of food marketed to kids would not comply, whether they are “nutritionally disastrous” or can be labeled as healthy. “In short,” they say, “implementation of the proposed Nutritional Principles would have an enormous immediate impact, and the IWG has no idea whether it is actually possible to make foods that would qualify, much less to make them enjoyable to eat.”

They also complain that the guidelines would ban noncomplying foods in TV ads in shows were adults make up 70%-80% of the viewing audience, and disallow even charitable sponsorships of youth sports despite the positive effects on kids health. And in a big no-no for Republicans, they say the guidelines do not take into account the economic impact of the new guidelines.

They also say there is no scientific support for the notion that restricting ads wil help reduce childhood obesity, saying it has more to do with not enough physical activity and eating too much rather than advertising and packaging of foods.

The letter from the legislators follows one to the same agencies last week from law professors asking them not to back off the guidelines.

The legislators want the heads of Health & Human Services, the USDA and the FTC to answer a bunch of questions by Sept. 27, including when it will conduct the study Congress called for, how it came up with nutrient levels to limit, what evidence there is that they are achievable, what evidence there is that childhood obesity is linked to advertising foor that does not comply with such principles, what it would cost industry to reformulate and how that would affect the price of food and impact the economy in other ways, and whether it feels free to recommend against restrictions if that is the best course, or whether it interprets its congressional mandate as requiring some restrictions even if the costs outweigh the benefits.

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