Legal Scholars Fight the Food Industry's Marketing to Children

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On Tuesday morning, three dozen legal scholars weighed in on the food industry's fight against proposed nutrition standards

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I just received a message from Samantha Graff, the director of legal research at Public Health Law & Policy, an advocacy group in Oakland, California.

Tuesday morning, she writes, 36 legal scholars -- including several experts on the First Amendment -- weighed in on the food industry's fight against proposed nutrition standards for foods and beverages marketed directly to children. This is the very issue I wrote about in this past weekend's San Francisco Chronicle column and have discussed in previous posts.

In a letter sent yesterday to federal agencies, the legal scholars point out that because food and beverage companies are free to ignore the nutrition recommendations, the draft principles "do not restrain or compel anyone's speech. They are not, in fact, government regulations at all."

A key industry strategy has been to recruit lawyers to write white papers charging that the proposed nutrition standards violate First Amendment rights to free speech.

Recall that Congress asked the FTC to join with the FDA, CDC, and USDA to recommend standards for food products marketed to kids. These agencies, collectively known as the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG), issued Preliminary Proposed Nutrition Principles to Guide Industry Self-Regulatory Efforts. This report outlines proposed voluntary standards that have been open for public comment.

My initial reaction: the standards were much too generous. But that's not how the food industry sees them. Food companies realized that the standards exclude large proportions of the junk foods they currently market to kids.

They created a new lobbying group, "Sensible Food Policy Coalition" (shades of George Orwell's 1984). This group is doing everything it can to block the proposed standards. Its website links to white papers opposing the recommendations on First Amendment grounds.

David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, responded to some of these claims in a recent blog post in which he emphasizes the voluntary nature of the proposals.

I've said it before and repeat: I am not a legal scholar, but intention seems to matter in legal decisions. The intent of the First Amendment was to protect political and religious speech. I cannot believe that the intent of the First Amendment was to protect the right of food companies to market junk foods to kids.

Marketing to children is unethical. It should be stopped. And it's the government's responsibility to do it.

Image: Creative Commons.

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This post also appears on Food Politics.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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