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More Empty Recommendations on Junk Food Marketing to Children

Insights + Opinion

Center for Food Safety

By Michele Simon

This week, the nation’s top public health experts are gathered at a much-trumpeted obesity conference hosted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called Weight of the Nation. (A quick glance at the agenda reveals nothing that would even begin to challenge the food industry.)

Released at this bland event was an equally uninspired report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM, an advisory arm of Congress) called, Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation. The irony of the report’s title gets lost among the 478 pages that aim to solve “this complex, stubborn problem” with “a comprehensive set of solutions.”

One of the recommendations intended to speed things up is for the food industry to “take broad, common, and urgent voluntary action to make substantial improvements” to marketing aimed at kids. This is certainly important, as advocates have for years been sounding the alarm about the intractable problem of junk food marketing to children and its connection to poor health. But another part of the IOM dictate sounded vaguely familiar:

If such marketing standards have not been adopted within two years by a substantial majority of food, beverage, restaurant and media companies that market foods and beverages to children and adolescents, policy makers at the local, state and federal levels should consider setting mandatory nutritional standards for marketing to this age group to ensure that such standards are implemented.

Two years? Where have I heard that deadline before? Oh yes, it was another IOM report, this one focused entirely on food marketing to children, from 2005, which reviewed the science showing a clear connection between junk food marketing and children’s dietary habits. That report said if voluntary efforts by industry to clean up its act were unsuccessful, “Congress should enact legislation mandating” a shift in advertising. Also, that “[w]ithin 2 years the Secretary [of health] should report to Congress on the progress and on additional actions necessary to accelerate progress.”

So it’s been 5 years since that earlier deadline has passed and now the food industry has 2 more years to show how much it really cares about kids? Did anyone at IOM bother to check its earlier reports before writing this one?

But it’s hardly IOM’s fault. If anyone is to blame for lack of action on this issue, it’s Congress and the White House, as two recent reports make painfully clear.

An in-depth investigation by Reuters describes the dirty details of the onslaught of Big Food lobbying in the wake of an effort by the federal government to improve voluntary guidelines on food marketing to kids.

Reuters found that food and beverage lobbyists spent more than $175 million lobbying since President Obama took office in 2009, more than double that spent in the previous three years, during the Bush administration. “In contrast, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, widely regarded as the lead lobbying force for healthier food, spent about $70,000 lobbying last year—roughly what those opposing the stricter guidelines spent every 13 hours.”

Reuters also examined lobbying visits to the White House, finding that a “who’s who of food company chief executives and lobbyists visited the White House” including:

CEOs of Nestle USA, Kellogg, General Mills, and top executives at Walt Disney, Time Warner, and Viacom, owner of the Nickelodeon children’s channel—companies with some of the biggest financial stakes in marketing to children. Those companies have a combined market value of more than $350 billion.

Another damning report emerged this month from the Sunlight Foundation found similar influence from Big Food. The strategy was for industry lobbyists to give money to members of Congress in exchange for their sending letters objecting to federal agency efforts. Here is how Sunlight describes one such transaction:

Days after receiving several campaign checks from the food lobby last May, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who is up for re-election this year, sent a letter raising concerns about the Federal Trade Commission’s efforts to develop voluntary guidelines aimed at toning down the marketing of junk food to kids.

Seems Klobuchar wasn’t the only Democrat on the dole. Sunlight found that while most letter-writers were Republicans, lobbyist campaign donations held particular sway with Senate Democrats. Those who wrote letters of objection “collected on average, more than twice as much campaign money from food lobbying interests since 2008 as those who did not write letters.” A similar pattern also held in the House, where 38 Democrats wrote letters of protest.

As Jeff McIntyre, policy director for the advocacy group Children Now told Reuters: “We just got beat. Money wins.” That’s why it’s irrelevant how many more recommendations or deadlines come from the Institute of Medicine or any other panel of experts on how to “accelerate” progress. The only thing getting accelerated is lobbying dollars into politicians’ pockets. And kids’ poor health.

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