An effort to get American children to eat more fruits and vegetables should, even in hyper-polarized Washington, be a no-brainer.  Congress recently declared pizza sauce to be a vegetable in school lunches. Now, major food manufacturers are escalating their attacks against healthy food calling proposed food marketing guidelines “job killers” that will devastate the American economy.

Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission, along with three other Federal agencies (FDA, CDC and USDA),  released a set of proposed voluntary guidelines for marketing food to children to reduce sugars, fats and salts and increase fruits,  whole grains and vegetables in the diets of American youth.    In 2008, led by Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Tom Harkin (D-IA), Congress asked for the recommendations to address the nations’ growing obesity crisis among our nation’s youth.

Studies show that one third of all children aged 10 to 17 are overweight or obese. In the past three decades rates have more than doubled among kids aged 2 to 5 and more than tripled among those ages 6 through 11.    The incidence of “adult onset” diabetes in children and youth has more than doubled in the past decade.

A coalition of major manufacturers of processed foods, fast-food chains, and the media industry that depends on their advertising dollars are spending millions to derail the proposed guidelines.  The FTC has already started to trim the proposal in response to the lobbying blitzkrieg but industry wants to go ever further. They want to use an industry designed scheme that would declare Chocolate Lucky Charms, Marshmallow Pebbles and Cookie Crisp cereals as healthy.

But despite industry claims these guidelines are not mandatory regulations; they are voluntary guidelines developed by an independent committee of nutrition experts about how we can improve children’s health.

That hasn’t stopped industry predictions of economic disaster.   According to comments filed by General Mills’ to Interagency Working Group “the economic consequences [of the guidelines] for American consumers and American agriculture would be devastating.”   They also predict “severe” economic consequences for the media industry and their employees.

They argue that the voluntary guidelines would cause consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables produced in other countries and therefore fewer grains grown in America.  According to research funded by the Grocery Manufacturers of America “demand for fruits and vegetables would increase by 1009% percent and 226% respectively” resulting in almost $500 billion more spent on imported food and $30 billion less on domestically grown grain.

Even if the voluntary guidelines were that effective and their study was accurate, it’s audacious marketing spin to turn an overwhelmingly positive victory for public health into a big government, job killing attack on freedom.

Another industry-funded study claimed that the voluntary guidelines would result in the loss of 74,000 jobs.    An analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, found the study riddled with “implausible” assumptions, historical inconsistencies and incomplete analyses of potential impacts to both the industry and economy as a whole.   For example, the industry study assumes, without justification, a 20% decline in advertising and completely ignores the likely scenario in which companies shift advertising to other products or audiences.    It also ignores the fact that there has been no negative economic impact since industry adopted its own guidelines in 2006. In fact, EPI concludes that the guidelines could have no impact on jobs or could even lead to job growth in other parts of the economy.

Finally, General Mills adds that the food companies’ $1.6 billion in advertising expenditures “would go up in smoke.” “$1.6 billion in economic activity cannot disappear without an impact on people’s jobs and livelihoods” they wrote.

While it’s impossible to believe that food conglomerates wouldn’t redirect their advertising dollars, it’s even harder to think that media companies wouldn’t find other buyers.  In fact, they’ve done it before.  When Congress banned tobacco ads on TV and Radio in 1970 media companies stood to lose $220 million in annual cigarette advertising.    Like their counterparts today, the networks, and broadcasters associations lobbied hard alongside big tobacco against the ban.

The media industry did fine. Total TV and Radio advertising sales has increased every year before the ban and after. According to media analysts, in 1969 ad expenditures on TV and radio were $4.85 billion. In 1972, they were $5.7 billion.

For decades, industries have opposed laws, rules and even basic consumer information that have made us all healthier. At every step they predict disaster but, in fact, they respond with new ideas and innovations and we all benefit.   These voluntary guidelines merely suggest a path that industry should embrace and applaud.


Donald Cohen is the director of the Cry Wolf Project, a nonprofit research network that identifies and exposes misleading rhetoric about the economy, regulation and government.