The Corner

Taking on the Food Regulators

I’m glad to see House Republicans push back on the Obama administration’s outrageous and potentially economically damaging regulatory actions directed at food manufacturers and marketers. 

In a letter sent Monday to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz, 22 Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee issued a firm suggestion that the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG) scrap their “current proposal and start afresh.” (I’ve written previously about the IWG’s actions here and here.)

If you need a reminder of just what shenanigans the IWG is up to, here’s a quick primer: The working group — made up of four powerful federal agencies — recently recommended that the food industry suspend advertising for foods and beverages that don’t meet the IWG’s own “nutrition principles.” So, which foods currently fail to meet these new IWG-designed principles? Oh, just a few totally healthy items like pretzels, nuts, popcorn, crackers, milk, yogurt, bread, bottled water, and frozen yogurts, among others.

Language in the FY 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act — the bill that created the IWG — directed members of the working group to “conduct a study and develop recommendations for standards for the marketing of food” and to “submit to Congress . . . a report containing the findings and recommendations.” The idea being that Congress would then review the report and decide if regulation was needed. 

But instead of following its legislative mandate, the IWG circumvented Congress and issued its own set of proposed “voluntary standards” for food manufacturers — standards that if implemented could cost upwards of 74,000 jobs and cost the food industry billions of dollars in lost revenue.   

In the House letter, lawmakers state that they are concerned that these “nutrition principles have been produced without the benefit of the study” and that these recommendations basically amount to “a shot in the dark.”

It’s interesting to consider why the IWG acted in this way. Why did these agencies simply ignore the requirement that a report be produced for congressional review? Could it be that there’s simply no scientific support for the regulatory recommendations they ultimately seek to make? Perhaps the IWG participants looked at the most recent study conducted by the Institute of Medicine, which found that the “current evidence is not sufficient to demonstrate a causal relationship between television advertising and obesity,” and decided it was best to just act independent of a study, scientific evidence to the contrary be damned!

Quite a separate action has taken place on the Senate side. Sen. Dick Durbin seems wildly supportive of the IWG’s actions. In fact, language praising the work of the IWG was approved by a Senate Appropriations subcommittee yesterday (the language goes to the full committee today). Apparently, Durbin doesn’t mind being ignored.

Durbin conveniently twists the original authorizing language for the IWG, saying that it was “established to develop voluntary nutrition standards and marketing definitions for foods marketed to children.” Wrong! The IWG was established to “conduct a study and issue recommendations” to Congress. Durbin’s language goes on to say that “studies show that food marketing affects children’s food choices, food preferences, diets, and health.” Wrong again! What studies? Could the senator please submit those for the record?

Durbin’s make-believe doesn’t stop there; he goes on to say, “The Committee recognizes the IWG’s careful review of existing science, nutrition, and marketing standards.” Wrong again! To date, the IWG hasn’t released a study. Unless the IWG accidently left the other copies in Durbin’s offices, the world isn’t aware of this praiseworthy study. The sham continues; Durbin’s report language says, “The majority of child-targeted marketing continues to be for products of poor nutritional value.” Wrong again! 

According to Georgetown Economic Services, food advertising during children’s programs declined 50 percent between 2004 and 2010, and 17 of the leading food companies (which represent more than three-quarters of the products advertized to children under twelve) have pledged in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative to advertise only healthy foods.

These efforts on the part of congressional Democrats to regulate the food industry into financial ruin will do nothing to improve the health of children. That small fact betrays the real motivation here: growing government no matter the cost.

— Julie Gunlock is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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