Industry Group: Feds Would Muzzle Advertising of Popular Foods

Lobby keeps pressure on government to change guidelines

WASHINGTON—Looking to hammer home its message that the government's proposal for voluntary guidelines that would restrict the marketing of foods aimed at children are out to lunch, the Sensible Food Policy Coalition released Thursday a list of popular foods that would not make the cut as healthy enough to be advertised to kids. Under the government's plan, the coalition said, makers of foods including oatmeal, ready-to-eat cereals like cornflakes and Cheerios, whole wheat bread, canned vegetables, rice, even diet soda and bottled water would be muzzled.

Of the 100 most popular foods, only 12—foods like 100 percent fruit juice, raw fruits and vegetables, and nonfat yogurt—would meet the requirements of the guidelines, according to the coalition, which is made up of food and media companies.

"It's amazing to me that many healthy foods the government is now saying that they are bad and shouldn't be advertised," said former USDA official Beth Johnson, a registered dietician who's principal of government relations firm Food Directions, at a press conference Thursday morning. "The government is inconsistent. The FDA has different definitions than the new guidelines. Foods allowed under USDA's WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] program, such as 2 percent milk and peanut butter, don't meet the new guidelines."

Since an interagency working group made up of the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control proposed the guidelines in April, the food, beverage, and advertising industries have fought hard against them, urging that they be withdrawn. The voluntary guidelines propose that food, beverage, and restaurant companies either modify product formulations or cut out all marketing of the products, from TV ads to packaging to sponsorships, aimed at children under 18.

Despite convincing 141 congressional members to write to the working group to ask it to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the guidelines, and language in two House appropriations bill that would cut off funds for the program, the coalition is taking no chances.

"We're not holding our breath that there will be any changes in the proposed guidelines," said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers, which is one of the 150 organizations that is part of the coalition. "We see no signals there will be major changes."

Proponents of the guidelines think the coalition is over-reacting to what they say are suggestions to help alleviate the childhood obesity epidemic.

"They've been aggressively lobbying against these voluntary guidelines which are simply a model to give companies an idea of what science-based standards would look like," said Dr. Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

As for the coalition's analysis of the top 100-selling foods, Wootan called it "a PR stunt."

"Very few of the products on the list such as beer, coffee, and bacon are marketed to children, so it's completely irrelevant," she said. And companies have already agreed not to market to children products like candy bars, donuts, and other junk food.

Wootan believes the coalition's analysis is also misleading. "It's not true that certain products, like cereal, don't meet the guidelines. There are a good number of cereals that do meet the guidelines, but those aren't cereals companies are marketing to kids," she said. "What they're really concerned about is that the standards suggest they can't market Fruit Loops or Spaghetti-Os."