Support the Nutrition Standards for Marketing Foods to Our Children

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The proposed guidelines, which are voluntary, are in danger of being withdrawn because of pressure from the food industry and friends

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I've just gotten an urgent plea from Margo Wootan at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Please encourage everyone to write to President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and federal agencies to support the nutrition standards for marketing foods to kids.

As I've discussed previously, these were created jointly by the Interagency Working Group (IWG) of four federal agencies -- CDC, FDA, FTC, and USDA.

Under intense pressure from the food and entertainment industries and their friends in Congress, the IWG's proposed guidelines -- voluntary, no less -- are in danger of being withdrawn.

Doing that might help corporate health but would do nothing for public health.

CSPI organized 75 researchers (including me) to send a letter to the President urging support of the voluntary guidelines and expressing dismay at the campaign of disinformation aimed at getting them withdrawn.

Junk-food advertisers, in the guise of the Sensible Food Policy Coalition, have attacked the voluntary guidelines as an assault on the First Amendment, a point debunked by top Constitutional experts, and claimed that adopting the voluntary guidelines would result in job losses, based on a flimsy industry "study."

[I]t would be a real setback for children's health if the Administration backed down on strong guidelines for food marketing to children, especially given the transparently specious arguments of junk-food advertisers.... Denying the science on food marketing and childhood obesity is like denying the science on global warming or evolution.

But the food industry is dug in on this one. For example, a reader sent me this letter from Tom Forsythe, vice president of corporate communications at General Mills (excerpts follow with my comments in brackets):

Your email notes that we have lobbied against the Interagency Working Group (IWG) proposal. That is correct. We have serious concerns about the IWG proposal.

Our most advertised product is cereal -- and we stand behind it. Cereal is one of the healthiest breakfast choices you can make.... If it is a General Mills cereal, it will also be a good or excellent source of whole grains.

Childhood obesity is a serious issue -- and General Mills wants to be part of the solution.  But if the issue is obesity, cereal should perhaps be advertised more, not less.

You can be assured than food and beverage companies have studied every letter, comma, and period in the proposal. We know what it says, and what it does not.

For example, we know that 88 of the 100 most commonly consumed foods and beverages could not be marketed under the IWG guidelines. The list of "banned" items under the guidelines would include essentially all cereals, salads, whole wheat bread, yogurt, canned vegetables, and a host of other items universally recognized as healthy [i'm not at all sure this is true].

Despite the characterizations used to advance them, the IWG guidelines would not be voluntary, in our view. The IWG guidelines are advanced by two of the agencies most responsible for regulating the food industry, as well as the agency most responsible for regulating advertising. Ignoring their "voluntary guidance" would not be an option for most companies.

Regulation has already been threatened (even demanded) should companies choose not to comply -- and litigation would inevitably follow.

The IWG guidelines also conflict with most existing government programs and definitions relative to food. For example, many products that meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's current definition of "healthy" could not be advertised under the IWG guidelines [it would be interesting to see examples].

Many products included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program fail the IWG standards, as do most products encouraged and subsidized under the USDA's Women, Infants, and Children Feeding Program (WIC) [if so, this is a sad commentary on what we encourage low-income mothers and children to eat].

Finally, your email suggests companies should focus on providing feedback via public comment. We agree. We have reviewed every detail of the IWG proposal -- and we remain opposed, as our public comment explains.

My interpretation: If food companies are this upset, the guidelines must be pretty good.

Companies have the right to sell whatever they like. But they should not have the right to market it as healthy or to kids.

Tell the IWG you support their guidelines. Tell the White House to protect the guidelines. Now, please.

Image: AP/Paul Sakuma.

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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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