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.


Instead, at the request of Congress, four government agencies (Federal Trade Commission, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration) 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 Federal Trade Commission, 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 two, and exploits vulnerable children with websites like and

Voluntary Self-Regulation Incompatible with Profits

For years, the same food companies that claim to be so responsible and 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. (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 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: 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 a rulemaking, but rather “proposed nutrition principles” and no regulations will result, just a report to Congress.)

Industry Takes Hypocrisy to New Heights

Despite whatever emerges from the IWG process being 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 it’s voluntary?)

But that’s not all. Last Thursday (the day comments were due to FTC — Big Food has impeccable timing), industry also released a set of brand new voluntary standards. Because who needs scientists at 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 would still be perfectly acceptable, a huge amount for a child.

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 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 wellbeing of children.



Michele Simon is a public health lawyer specializing in industry marketing and lobbying tactics. She is the author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, and research and policy director at Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watchdog group.

  • Doc Mudd

    Pretty cheesy journalism here. Please explain to me how this article is anything more than a sophomorish rant.
    Where’s the link to primary sources displaying “PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, and McDonald’s…tizzy”, their “tone[d] and fervor[ed]…reaction”? What apoplectic press releases have they published? Where are the strained emotional interviews with panicked CEOs being reported verbatim?
    The only hystrionics I can see here are those of the author and her intrepid “colleagues” [read: sister hatemongers] over at Campaign for a Fun-Free Childhood. (Google up the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, follow the money and you find it’s just another example of an inbred activist organization, this one spun off from Third Sector New England, a professional fund-raising outfit)
    Simon passionately embellishes a mundane back-and-forth between government and industry of voluntary guidelines for marketing products whose end consumers tend to be children. Parents, of course, are the shoppers – they do the actual purchasing.
    The real story here is the palpable hate radiating from organized busybodies who aspire to dictate their own extreme terms. These disenfranchized hatemongers are the ones in a “tizzy”, the ones spitting feathers over this otherwise unremarkable voluntary industry guidance.
    So, plenty of hate on tap, a few flawed underlying assumptions about kids and industry and government and obesity, and not a fact in sight – only conjecture, spin, inflamatory rhetoric and an intense pernicious sanctimony. Same old same old from the food police.—-myth-busters.html

  • CT

    Wow… Food Safety News, this is clearly an opinion piece, but I don’t see it noted as such. Where is the “news”? This is all editorial.
    “In late 2009, the IWG released its first proposal, which Marion Nestle politely called “weak.” But even this step proved too much for industry. “… If anyone bothered to take a look at the proposed guidelines that came out in late 2009, it would be easy to see the flaws. There were two main guidelines, that worked against each other, essentially excluding many of the foods that many of us would consider to be healthful. It would be impossible to market basic, whole foods like eggs, nuts (plain, unsalted), bread (100% whole wheat), lean meat/poultry/fish, or even yogurt (plain, no fruit on the bottom).
    There is so much bias in this article, that I can’t believe you decided to publish it as is.

  • mrothschild

    I initially posted Michele’s opinion piece under our “Opinion and Contributed” and “Food Politics” categories, but only the “Food Politics” label appeared at the top (the article also appears in the “Opinion and Contributed” column on the right.) I’ve reposted it under the “Opinion and Contributed” label. Thanks for pointing out my error.

  • Ted

    Well…. we’ve been dished the highly opinionated Mudd disinformation…
    … so here’s a partial quote from a further opinion that properly puts all this into the perspective of CORPORATE PROFITS, squarely where it belongs…
    “Protect Our Kids Health
    Federal guidelines that would help support healthy foods for kids are under attack.
    Larry Cohen, Huffington Post, 7/11/11
    Every parent wants their child to grow up healthy and strong, but food companies have stacked the deck against them. The food industry spends $2 billion a year marketing foods to kids. An average eleven year old sees 4,700 food ads a year–and that’s just on tv. Our kids are also seeing junk food promoted in school, in movies, on toys, in video games, sports events and virtually every part of their lives. Worse, almost 100% of the ads they’re seeing are for foods that are high in fat, sugar or sodium.
    Are these techniques effective at influencing what our children eat? The Institute of Medicine says yes, and so does the American Academy of Pediatricians. The real question is: would food companies be spending two billion a year on them if they weren’t?
    Today a coalition made up of PepsiCo, General Mills, Kellogg’s, the American Association of Advertising Agencies and Time Warner complained that the standards would cost them $28.3 billion in revenue. If that’s 28.3 billion dollars’ worth of junk food that kids won’t be eating in a year, it seems like one of the most effective tools we have for really getting to the roots of our chronic disease epidemic. And the fact is, until food manufacturers start promoting healthy foods, something’s got to give–should it be food industry profits or our children’s health?
    It’s simply not fair. Food companies use animated characters to manipulate children’s affections, and sponsorships and advertising in schools to win new customers. The current system of food marketing is unrelenting, and puts all the responsibility on parents to protect their kids–but parents can’t be everywhere their kids are, or even see the foods they choose at school and at friends’ houses. Parents shouldn’t have to play defense in a world designed to make their kids consume unhealthy food, just so companies can make bigger profits. The proposed standards are an important step in shifting the power back towards children and families…”

  • Doc Mudd

    Aw, c’mon Gilman — tell us who the hell is Larry Cohen and what credentials make his opinion significant? Is he just another of your paid propagandists over at NOFA?
    We already have fanatic opinions enough. You’ll have to cite some facts to convince us.
    Otherwise you might better be outside on a nice day like this pitching your dung, blessing your weeds, maybe fleecing a customer or two.

  • Steve

    well….. it doesn’t take much googling to find out that:
    “Larry Cohen is founder and Executive Director of Prevention Institute, a national non-profit dedicated to improving community health and equity through effective primary prevention: taking action to build resilience and to prevent illness and injury before they occur. With an emphasis on health equity, Larry has led many successful public health efforts at the local, state, and federal level on injury and violence prevention, mental health, traffic safety, and food and physical activity-related chronic disease prevention.”
    He makes excellent points from years of experience. But in this case the bigger question is who is the highly opinionated but totally credential-less Doc Mudd ?

  • Doc Mudd

    Oui, vous.
    Prevention Institute & HuffPo ain’t exactly The Lancet.
    Yer gonna hafta to do better’n that, old boy.

  • dangermaus

    Junk food consumption is the biggest cause of health problems in our country today. It’s why so many of us are obese, diabetic, hypertensive, and allergic to food and things in the environment. These problems don’t exist in cultures that don’t eat the synthetic crap that we eat, and these problems appear in every culture that starts doing so.
    Additionally, convenience eating is part of the destruction of the biggest cultural, family-building activities out there – eating dinner every night at the table.

  • Mary Rothschild

    I initially posted Michele’s opinion piece under our “Opinion and Contributed” and “Food Politics” categories, but only the “Food Politics” label appeared at the top (the article also appears in the “Opinion and Contributed” column on the right.) I’ve reposted it under the “Opinion and Contributed” label. Thanks for pointing out my error.

  • Doc Mudd

    Huh, who’d a thunk it — obesity, diabetes, hypertension and allergies were unknown, they simply did not exist prior to, oh, about the first world war, or maybe the second — synthetics, you understand. At least that’s the gospel according to doctor dangermaus. Thank goodness Dr d. has all the easy answers to complex problems! God bless you, Dr d, God bless you!!!!
    Hell, if we would simply turn the clock back (back to the magical time of the wonderful fiefdoms should be far enough, eh?) we will all become immortal, right Dr d?
    We will live friggin’ forever — or so it will seem as we’re all, each of us putting in back-to-back 18 hour days doubled over grunting away romantically at peasant stoop labor in some dismal mud patch somewhere, busting hump to grow a few wormy organic turnips to gnaw on. Won’t be any goddam obesity then, will there?
    dangermaus, renowned deep thinker extraordinaire, is a national, no, a global, no, a galactic intellectual treasure!!

  • Andy Ryan

    This is a good piece by Michele Simon about deliberate deceptiveness between what these firms say and what they do. Most comments on FSN are done in good faith but linking to a website chock-full of cherry picked quotes from a website that is associated with “The Center for Consumer Freedom” almost makes it looks like the junk food industry also likes to silence its critics with guess what? More junk.
    Have your fill of empty mind calories at:
    Remember tobacco’s rationalizations about Joe Camel?

  • KED

    Have we forgotten that kids still can’t go to the grocery store and buy their own food? Ultimately, it is still up to the parents what is going into their children’s mouths, so maybe we should stop with this frivolity and put the responsibility back where it belongs…with parents.
    By the way, for the record, I have two young children, and while we don’t eat a lot of fast food, we certainly CAN and DO make healthier choices when we do. And there aren’t any sugary frosted cereals in my house. Kids eat what they’re given, and if other parents want to feed their kids foods that are the targets of this piece, that’s not my place to say. But mine aren’t getting any of it.

  • Jonesy

    One has to be naive or disingenuous to fully swallow “the parents buy” story. If kids don’t buy groceries then why are this firms advertising to children? Everyone who has been in a grocery store has seen ad influenced child set against parent struggles for purchasing control.
    Now, irrespective of the nutritional aspect what is truly vile and despicable is how many of the ads exploit innocent and developing child’s need to feel nurtured, to follow role models and to gain peer group acceptance.
    Parent what are you going to do about it?

  • I totally concur.
    I had a conversation about this just the other day, many thanks.

  • Doc Mudd

    Failed parenting is so tres chic!

  • Doc Mudd

    Your out-of-control kids aren’t our fault…