This post was written by Nancy Watzman, consultant for the Sunlight Foundation.
A major lobbying push by a powerful group of food and media companies appears to be working, with a federal agency indicating it would back off on parts of proposed voluntary guidelines for marketing food to children. The guidelines are meant to combat childhood obesity.
Also, language in a pending congressional spending bill, one of several that Congress must approve before the end of the year to keep the government running, threatens to prohibit the agency, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), from issuing a final version of the nutritional guidelines at all without doing a cost-benefit analysis first.
Big companies such as Nestle, Kellogg, Viacom, McDonalds, General Mills, and Time Warner have indicated on official reports that they have lobbied on the controversial proposed guidelines; all together such companies have reported spending more than $37 million on lobbying this year. Most of these companies have a long list of concerns on Capitol Hill of which the nutrition guidelines are just one; however the totals reported demonstrate how powerful a presence these entities have in Washington. Most are also major sources of campaign money for members of Congress.
Kellogg complained that the new guidelines--which the government has stressed would be voluntary--were too strict and among other things could eliminate their use of popular characters like "Tony the Tiger" and "Ernie Keebler," the elf. Children's advocacy and health groups countered that an epidemic of childhood obesity warranted tough action.
In October hearings before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a representative from Campbell Soup Company, which reports spending $70,000 on lobbying this year, charged that the nutritional criteria in the guidelines are "unrealistic, counterproductive, contrary to established nutrition policy" and that industry would do a better job of policing itself.
Another witness from the Association of National Advertisers, which reported spending $820,000 on lobbying this year, argued that the proposed guidelines are “backdoor regulation” by four "extremely powerful government agencies that seek to accomplish a goal indirectly that could not be reached through normal rulemaking procedures."
At the same hearing, David Vladeck, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection for the FTC, announced that the agency was "in the midst of making significant revisions to its preliminary proposal' and that these changes would "share much in common" with new standards proposed by an industry group last summer. These changes include making the guidelines applicable to a smaller age group--children ages 2 to 11 rather than 2 to 17, and exempting seasonal advertising, such as in-store displays for Halloween.
Several weeks later, at a hearing for the renomination of FTC commissioner Jon Leibowitz, Democratic and Republican senators alike--who as reported by Sunlight counted food and media companies among their campaign donors--lobbed hostile questions about the guidelines. Leibowitz stressed the voluntary nature of the guidelines and the fact they are unenforceable.
Meanwhile, last summer, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., reported the Washington Post, inserted language into a pending appropriations bill that would prohibit the FTC from completing its draft report on nutrition guidelines without first doing a cost benefit analysis. Among her donors this election cycle are PACs for the American Beverage Association, the National Restaurant Association, and PepsiCo Inc., all of which are lobbying against the guidelines. Her office did not return several calls for comment.
The FTC guidelines, which the agency is issuing in conjunction with several other agencies, were mandated in a 2009 appropriations bill. Industry rallied against the guidelines, particularly when the FTC issued a draft and opened it up for comment last April. The agency received 29,000 comments, the great majority from letter writing campaigns supporting the proposal, according to Vladeck's testimony. Industry groups, however, also are heavily represented, with most of the groups that reported lobbying on the guidelines also filing comment letters. (Unique comments can be found on the FTC's website here.)
Some of the companies went beyond in-house lobbying staff to get help from lobbying firms on the issue. For example, the Coca-Cola Company used Williams and Jensen. Pepsico got assistance from the C2 Group and Russell and Barron. Sara Lee used SNR Denton. Over all public relations were handled by Anita Dunn, formerly communications director at the Obama White House, at the firm SKDKnickerbocker Consulting.
Children's advocacy and health organizations that support the guidelines have also reported lobbying on the guidelines; however, their efforts are not as well funded. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which sent a representative to testify at the October hearings and which was instrumental in creating the 2009 legislation mandating the guidelines, has reported spending $62,354 on lobbying this year. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported spending $205,168, and the American Dental Association, $1.9 million. Other supportive groups, such as Children Now, do not report any lobbying expenses.