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FTC chairman on IWG proposal to curb junk food marketing food to kids: ‘It’s not a priority’

By Elaine Watson , 27-Mar-2012

FTC chairman on IWG proposal to curb junk food marketing food to kids: ‘It’s not a priority’

A controversial government proposal designed to curb the marketing of junk food to kids is not high up the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC’s) priority list, it has emerged.

As this video of a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Financial Services from earlier this month reveals (click here and fast forward to 1:24 ), FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz says he has bigger fish to fry right now.

Asked which commitments were of a ‘critical nature’ in light of budget cuts, Leibowitz said: “The interagency working group (IWG*) report [to restrict food advertising to children aged 2-17] was mandated by the Senate appropriations committee…

“I think from the perspective of the commission, it’s probably time to move on to other areas. That would not be a priority.”

He clarified: ”Food marketing to kids is a priority, and childhood obesity is a priority, but [as regards] that particular initiative [the IWG proposal], it’s probably time to move on…”

Kicked into the long grass?

Given that an omnibus funding bill in mid-December (Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012) stipulated that the FTC would not be given any cash to take the proposal forward without first proving compliance with executive order 13563, it now seems unlikely that the proposal will get anywhere any time soon.

Executive Order 13563, issued by President Obama in 2011, requires that new regulations measure the costs and benefits to society, follow the best available science, and promote economic growth and job creation.

The move was greeted with horror by supporters of tougher controls on marketing to kids – with New York University professor Marion Nestle noting it was “hard to believe how thoroughly Congress is in bed with the food industry ” – but welcomed by food manufacturers, which have long opposed the proposals.

Commenting on Jon Leibowitz’s comments at this month’s hearing, the American Bakers Association (ABA) said: “ABA was part of a broad coalition that aggressively fought this misguided proposal, which was inconsistent with many federal nutrition programs and guidelines.

“In fact, the proposal eliminates the ability to promote/advertise very basic and important grain food staples in children's diets including: nutritious, fiber rich whole wheat breads, whole grain cereals, and enriched grain products.”

A storm of controversy

The IWG proposals, hailed by the American Dietetic Association (ADA) as “evidence-based, scientifically sound” and capable of making a “substantial contribution to the obesity epidemic”, provoked a storm of controversy when they were published last April, being welcomed by consumer groups and health lobby groups, but dismissed by food manufacturers as unworkable and inconsistent with the government’s own Dietary Guidelines.

While the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said it was “unseemly” to see “panicked junk-food advertisers running to Congress for help” to quash “innocuous” voluntary guidelines, its claim that the food industry has overreacted to the proposals was disingenuous, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association 9GMA).

“The FDA, USDA and the FTC regulate virtually every aspect of food manufacturing and when they make ‘suggestions’, they are taken very seriously.”

What’s all the fuss about?

One of the most controversial aspects of the IWG proposal are the sodium targets (140 mg/RACC for individual foods by 2021), which would prevent firms from marketing “almost every ready-to-eat breakfast cereal, most instant oatmeal products and many whole wheat and whole grain breads” to children, claims the GMA.

“The sodium levels.. are unrealistic, extremely restrictive, and if adopted, may result in unintended consequences, including food safety risks, health risks, a decrease in affordability, and the elimination of marketing of close to whole categories of foods, without any evidence that the modifications… would prevent childhood obesity.”

*The IWG represents the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Click here to read the IWG's original proposals in full. 

Click here to read the American Dietetic Association’s comments.

Click here to read the GMA’s formal submission on the proposal.

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