An effort by four federal agencies to limit marketing of junk food to children has provoked a fight between the packaged food industry and public health groups as intense as the cigarette wars of the 1980s.
The agency guidelines, ordered by Congress in 2009, are due this month after a 1 1/2-year delay. They will be scaled back after a ferocious lobbying campaign by food manufacturers who fear that Twinkies are fast becoming the next tobacco.
The stakes are high, both for the $1 trillion food industry and for public health groups alarmed by Americans’ growing girth. Whether a child develops a taste for fruit or Froot Loops can establish lifelong eating patterns that translate to billions of dollars in sales of packaged foods and potentially devastating consequences for public health.
A third of poor preschoolers are now obese by age 5. Obese children are likely to become obese adults, at higher risk of having diabetes, heart disease and other chronic and costly ills.
“The idea of prevention is to stop that before it starts, and industry knows the same thing,” said Michele Simon, an Oakland public health attorney and author of “Appetite for Profit.” “We’re fighting the same battle. Industry knows they have to get the kids while they’re young because they want them hooked on their products, and we in public health are saying we need to prevent a lifetime of unhealthy eating by getting kids starting out right.”
The nutrition guidelines would be voluntary, aimed at reducing unhealthy ingredients and increasing healthier nutrients in foods marketed to children. They were developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Trade Commission, following a 2006 report by the Institute of Medicine that found a causal link between food marketing and children’s desire for candy, soda and chips.
When the agencies issued their draft last spring, the food industry fought back hard, spending $37 million on lobbying, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group that tracks such outlays. The industry’s Sensible Food Policy Coalition warned that 88 of the “top 100 most commonly consumed foods” would fail the standards, including salads and whole wheat bread.
Sana Chehimi, program director of the nonprofit Prevention Institute in Oakland, accused the industry of opposing the guidelines because they “would show to the public what the industry should be doing if they really cared about kids’ health.”
The industry warned that the guidelines would violate the First Amendment, ban Tony the Tiger, destroy 75,000 jobs and lead to regulation, although none of the agencies has regulatory authority over food marketing.
Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing in October, where they grilled the agency chiefs about restricting food choices. A lithe Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, recalled eating SpaghettiOs as a child with no ill effect.
David Vladeck, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, said the industry should “switch to decaf.” William Dietz, director of the obesity division of the Centers for Disease Control, stressed the gravity of the health threat, saying a modest shift in calorie intake by children could have a big effect.
Campbell Soup Co. senior marketing counsel Jim Baughman urged that the recommendations be withdrawn, calling them “unrealistic” and “counterproductive.” The company’s SpaghettiOs, along with its Goldfish crackers and “healthy soups,” would fail the criteria because they exceed limits on salt.
“Food makers cannot commercialize foods that don’t meet the taste expectations of consumers,” Baughman said.
In response, the agencies promised to soften the guidelines. Vladeck said the cutoff age for limiting marketing to children would drop from age 17 to 12. Limits on packaging and sponsorships were eased.
Federal Trade Commission spokeswoman Betsy Lordan said the guidelines “haven’t been finalized” but that the agencies “are hopeful they will submit the report to Congress by the end of this year.”
“There’s a certain amount of political paralysis at this point,” said David Britt, retired chief executive of Sesame Workshop and a participant in the Institute of Medicine report.