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Fed's Food Guidelines Hit Brick Wall in Year-End Budget Bill

Food and beverage advertisers called for cost-benefit analysis
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The federal government's proposed food guidelines for marketing food to children hit a brick wall Thursday as Congress prepares to vote out its year-end budget package for 2012.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 includes a provision that requires the Federal Trade Commission and the three agencies that are part of the Interagency Working Group to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed guidelines. The move, considered a major victory for food and beverage advertisers, effectively delays release of the final guidelines, originally expected by the end of this year.

Though the guidelines are voluntary, food and beverage advertisers have mounted a vigorous lobby campaign to stop them, arguing that the standards are nothing less than back-door regulation. Following hearings in the House and the Senate and letters from lawmakers, the IWG signaled it would soften the guidelines by narrowly targeting them to children 12 and younger, lift restrictions on packaging and marketing, and exempt seasonal campaigns. 

"A proposal that is so sweeping and restrictive should certainly be justified on a cost-benefit basis. There is nothing in the [IWG] report to date that spells the benefits out concretely," said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers, which has argued the guidelines would cost multibillions of dollars to advertisers that would be forced to change product formulations.

Nutritionists, arguing that the guidelines are necessary to combat childhood obesity, chalked up the budget provision as another case of lobbying clout wielded by deep-pocketed interests. "Too bad kids don't have their own PAC," said Margo Wootan, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She cited a Sunlight Foundation report that found advertisers spent as much as $37 million to lobby Congress in 2011. 

"Both the House and the Senate have fallen for industry's faulty claims that marketing is not effective, that voluntary suggestions violate the First Amendment or that they would reduce jobs," Wootan added.