Last week, the nation’s top public health experts 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.


Michele Simon, a public health lawyer, is a policy consultant with the Center for Food Safety. “More Empty Recommendations on Junk Food Marketing to Children was originally posted at Center for Food Safety.

  • doc raymond

    i grew up in the 50s eating Sugar Frosted Flakes and Sugar Smacks that targeted me as a kid. I also ate fried Chicken with the skin on it every Sunday, and fatty hamburgers every Friday night. After school snacks were often Bologna sandwiches. And school lunches five days per week. I also watched Saturday morning cartoons that were geared to hook me. But what i did not do was sit at a computer playing games, or exercising my thumbs on Game Boys and other such electronic mind numbers.
    Big Ag and Big Food are not the culprits here. Parents are.

  • Well said, Doc Raymond!
    The last thing we need is for the govt. to take more liberty away, good intentions or not.
    Parents can get their kids to exercise (as well as get exercise themselves and bond more with their children), put in dvd’s for the kids to watch instead of watching commercialized tv, and learn to say “no” if their kids ask for more than moderate amounts of sugary treats.
    In other words, be responsible parents. It has the added benefit of costing the govt. nothing and stopping more insane regulations on businesses (which raises the price of products and brings about frivolous lawsuits because parents have abregated their responsibility to Big Nanny govt.).
    No, we don’t need the govt. to help us raise our children and grandchilden.
    And we also don’t need another sanctimonious bureaucracy telling businesses and parents what to feed our kids.
    There’s nothing wrong with “junk” food if it’s eaten in moderation and kids get some exercise.
    The govt. and anti-food they don’t like activists are never going to get the results they want by punishing businesses and talking down to folks.
    In fact, the govt. should do nothing. Activists can go right ahead exercising their smug, free speech rights but without any help or subsidies from the govt..
    Most folks I know are fed up with all this fearmongering and chicken little talk and want the govt. to mind it’s own business and not ours.
    As for education, the govt. does a horrible enough job doing that as it is. So I’m not inclined to trust bureacrats with more than basic food education minus the food apocalypse talk.
    Let’s not give the govt. permission to get bigger and have more power over us. That never ends well.

  • Joe

    Problem is, Doc, that judging by your picture you’re kind of old (me too) and your childhood memories are of a kinder, gentler corporate marketing onslaught against kids — much more benign than we have now.
    The problem with pointing the finger at parents who fail to properly oversee what their kids are consuming is that there’s been generations of parents that grew up as targets in this junk processed food climate — and the parents themselves are already hooked. From the industry’s point of view these are the perfect overseers — NOT!
    Marketing works and becomes deeply engrained — just look at your own “Didn’t Hurt Me” proclivities. And the proven addictive aspects of sugars, salt and processing additives bring people back for more.
    It’s So Profitable — cheap ingredients priced sky-high on a per pound basis — that the Junk Food Corporations are never going to stop raking in their huge annual dirty profits on their own.
    Big Tobacco’s Denial is the the role model for Big Food here — remember the Corporate Executives swearing to God before Congress that tobacco is not addictive. The rates of Adult AND Childhood obesity — with ALL their negative health effects — are just as scandalous.
    After years of just pointing fingers at the failure of personal responsibility with tobacco, society finally had to address the real source — corporate power and dirty profits. The same has to happen with junk food before this nation becomes totally run by and for the corporations.