Boy with a burgerPhoto: Amanda WestmontCross-posted from Food Safety News.

Last week, as health advocates around the nation raced against a deadline to submit comments to the federal government on food marketing to children, the food industry was busy doing what it does best: launching a massive PR campaign to undermine anything the feds might dare do to protect children from corporate predatory marketing.

What exactly got the likes of PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, and McDonald’s in such a tizzy? You would think, by the tone and fervor of their reaction, that the government was imposing a complete ban on food marketing to children.

Hardly.

Instead, at the request of Congress, four government agencies — Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — collectively known as the Interagency Working Group proposed voluntary “principles” for food companies to follow in hopes of curbing ads aimed at kids for fast food, sugary cereals, soda, candy, and a host of other nutrient-deficient food products.

Indeed, the FTC, in a twisted attempt to allay industry fears that the agency might even be thinking of regulating them, explained:

This is a report to Congress, not a rulemaking proceeding, so there’s no proposed government regulation. In fact, the FTC Act explicitly forbids the Commission from issuing a rule restricting food advertising to children. So the FTC couldn’t issue a rule on this subject if it wanted to, which it doesn’t.

Got that, Big Food? FTC not only can’t regulate you, it doesn’t even want to. What a great message to send to an industry that targets kids as young as 2, and exploits vulnerable children with websites like Ronald.com and Trixworld.com.

Voluntary self-regulation incompatible with profits

For years, the same food companies that claim to be so responsible and to care about the welfare of children have shown themselves to be completely untrustworthy. In late 2005, given alarming data on childhood obesity and the connection to child-targeted junk food ads, the Institute of Medicine recommended that Congress act within two years if industry showed no signs of progress through voluntary measures. 

In response, fast food and junk food peddlers banded together in 2006 to create the impressive-sounding Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). (An “initiative” is industry’s favorite way to substitute for actual law.) The CFBAI consisted of a series of individual company “pledges” (really) on food marketing to children. 

Only one problem: By all accounts, it’s been a dismal failure. At least three organizations, the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Children Now, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest [PDF] have each conducted reviews of industry voluntary self-regulation on food marketing to children and found the system to be lacking, to say the least.

Enter the Interagency Working Group (IWG): Coordinated by the FTC, the effort to rein in the food industry’s most harmful marketing was doomed from the start. In late 2009, the IWG released its first proposal, which Marion Nestle politely called “weak.” But even this step proved too much for industry. Then we waited for the next round. And waited. (During this time, I attended meetings with FTC’s Mary Engle, who took pains to explain that politics was holding things up. Really?)

Then finally in April, the proposed rule emerged, along with the comment period. (I am not even sure what to call the process, as it’s not rulemaking, but rather “proposed nutrition principles,” and no regulations will result, just a report to Congress.)

Industry takes hypocrisy to new heights

Despite the fact that whatever emerges from the IWG process will be completely voluntary (as in no consequences if industry ignores the whole thing), over the last few weeks, food and media corporations have launched an all-out assault.

According to The Washington Post, the “Sensible Food Policy Coalition,” consisting of the likes of PepsiCo, Kellogg, Viacom, Time Warner, and even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is “trying to derail” the federal proposal. They have already spent a cool $6.6 million on lobbying in the first quarter. “Overall, records show, the coalition’s main members have spent nearly $60 million on lobbying since the start of the Obama administration,” according to the Post.

Also, to take full advantage of the opportunity to tie the issue to the slumping economy, industry pointed to an odd two-page “report” predicting the loss of over 74,000 jobs if the proposal was implemented. (Did I mention that implementation is voluntary?)

But that’s not all. Last Thursday (the day comments were due to the FTC — Big Food has impeccable timing), industry also released a set of brand new voluntary standards. Because who needs scientists at the FDA and CDC when you can have the marketing guys at Burger King and Coca-Cola calling the shots instead? 

But as The New York Times reported, “the new guidelines are modest and would not require food makers to change much — two-thirds of the products the companies now advertise already meet them.” Moreover, 10 grams of sugar per serving, a huge amount for a child, would still be perfectly acceptable.

With industry pulling out all the stops, even going so far as to lobby Congress to require a “cost benefit analysis” of the proposed voluntary principles (how to measure cost/benefit if compliance is not required is a mystery), what are the odds the final report will ever see the light of day? But more important, when will the federal government stop expecting industry to just voluntarily change its marketing practices, when obviously so much money is at stake?

My colleagues at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood concluded their comments [PDF] to the FTC by insisting on a new approach:

Given this inevitable and intractable recalcitrance, we urge the FTC, after implementing these principles, to spend its time and resources developing a system
– including asking Congress for additional authority — that would truly protect children from the excesses of the food and marketing industries, rather than wooing industries that continue to show blatant disregard for the well-being of children.

Amen.