Food industry encouraged by feds' apparent step back on kids' marketing restrictions

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The letter comes in response to Upton's request that the interagency working group (IWG) conduct a study on the issue of obesity and food marketing before issuing any guidance, as required under the 2009 federal spending bill that created the IWG. The letter was signed by the heads of the Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments and the Federal Trade Commission.

The administration's letter, American Frozen Food Institute spokesman Corey Henry said, "on the surface appears to be very good news."

"It's a clear indication that they've heard from Congress and that there needs to be significant change," he said.

Consumer advocates however were not discouraged.

"The IWG proposed marketing guidelines based on science and what is best for kids," said Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The industry ... released standards that are best for industry. This is Washington, I expect that the final marketing guidelines will be somewhere in between."

Henry said industry would continue to closely monitor the group's proposals, but could get behind guidelines that are "effective, reasonable, easy to implement and demonstrably likely to improve nutrition and reduce childhood obesity."

Still, industry remains concerned.

"Obviously, to endorse this action without seeing the particulars is like being asked to sign a blank check," said Dan Jaffe of the Association of National Advertisers. "Glad that they admit that there needs to be modifications but only the particulars will allow us to say whether we are happy or unhappy with this proposal."

The guidelines have come under fire from the food and marketing industries — and from members of both parties — ever since they came out in April. Industry says even though they're voluntary, they're too restrictive and could prevent food-makers from advertising even some healthy foods, such as oatmeal.

Anti-obesity advocates on the other hand have embraced the guidelines as key to fighting childhood obesity. And Senate Democrats vowed to move forward with the regulations in their financial services spending bill for fiscal 2012.

While the administration's letter is welcome news for the industry, it doesn't directly address Upton's concern that the working group developed proposed guidelines before issuing its study, as required by the law. The letter appears to skirt that issue by suggesting that regulators conducted a "thorough review of nutrition science and policy, food marketing activities to children, and various industry and government models for the nutritional quality of foods marketed to children."

"They basically skipped Step 1 and went straight to Step 2," Henry said.

This post was updated at 5:15 p.m. with comment from the Center for Science in the Public Interest and on Thursday with comment from the Association of National Advertisers.