Monday, July 11, 2011

Obama Advisor Crafts Campaign Against Administration's Food Marketing Guidelines

Food & media corporate giants hire former presidential advisor as they establish "Sensible Food Policy Coalition" to battle FTC nutrition proposal...
UPDATE, July 14: Food giants unveil their own guidelines
A powerful group of food and media corporate giants have the knives out for the Obama Administration's preliminary voluntary principles for advertising food to children, unveiled by the Federal Trade Commission in April to support First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign to end childhood obesity. The group has dubbed itself the "Sensible Food Policy Coalition," and President Obama's former White House Communications Director, Anita Dunn, has been hired to create their media blitz to protest the guidelines. Members include PepsiCo, Viacom, Kellogg's, General Mills, Time Warner, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, and the Association of National Advertisers. Dunn and her consultancy, SKDKnickerbocker launched the anti-Obama PR campaign on Friday with a report on the potentially devastating economic impact of the guidelines, the firm's Alex Slater told Obama Foodorama. Slater is also part of the team. (Above: Dunn, at left, meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office)

A longtime Democratic consultant, Dunn served as White House Communications Director in 2009, and she is married to lawyer Bob Bauer, who recently left his post as White House counsel to work on President Obama's re-election efforts. Friday's economic report from the Coalition focused on one of the most crucial issues President Obama faces as he seeks another term: Job loss. The goal of the Coalition's campaign is to have the FTC proposal completely "withdrawn," attorney Jim Davidson, who is working with Dunn, told Obama Foodorama. Davidson chairs the public policy group at Washington, DC law firm Polsinelli Shughart.

"We'll do whatever it takes" to make the Administration abandon the guidelines, Davidson said, adding that the campaign seeks to influence everyone from the general public to Members of Congress. There will be advertisements and more economic impact reports. There's no website--yet. Update: The website is here.

Mrs. Obama has repeatedly urged food corporations to voluntarily change their practices, asking them to "do better" in re-formulating processed foods and in marketing foods to children. The FTC guidelines lay out exactly what is expected, offering nutrition parameters for the foods corporations plan to market to children ages 2-17. These were created by an interagency working group with members from FTC, FDA, USDA, and CDC. The guidelines include a time-frame for "voluntary" compliance.

“Our kids didn’t learn about the latest sweets and snack foods on their own. They hear about these products from advertisements on TV, the Internet, video games, schools, many other places," Mrs. Obama said in a speech to the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) last year, as she asked industry to "entirely re-think" their practices.

Mrs. Obama urged food makers to put their marketing spotlight on healthy foods rather than junk foods, and the proposed guidelines suggest that companies advertise only foods with low levels of sugar, fat, and salt to children. Industry should embrace "stronger and more meaningful self-regulation" to "support parents’ efforts to get their kids to eat healthier foods," the FTC guidelines say.

"I’m asking you to actively promote healthy foods and healthy habits to our kids," Mrs. Obama told food makers last year. "Just as we can shape our children’s preferences for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods--with a lot of persistence, we can also turn them on to high-quality, healthier foods as well."

The proposal has been causing an uproar since it was first released, so much so that Dave Vladeck, FTC's Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, wrote a post on the agency's blog to debunk what he called "myths" surrounding the guidelines. The public comment period was extended in response to the active public debate, and now closes on July 14.

The Coalition began organizing last month, Davidson said, noting that there are big plans to keep pushing the Administration, but declining to elaborate. The Coalition has collectively spent billions of dollars advertising unhealthy foods to children, and according to public disclosure records, billions more lobbying the federal government.

The economic report that the Coalition unveiled on Friday was timed to coincide with the release of the monthly national jobs report, an event that is much anticipated by the White House and the press, among others. This month's job report was so dismal--showing an unemployment rate of 9.2%--that President Obama made an emergency Rose Garden appearance to make a statement about it. The report, conducted by IHS Global Insight, states that the ad guidelines, if followed, will lead to a 20% reduction in expenditures, which will cause a "ripple effect" through the commerce chain, leading to $28.3 billion lost in manufacturing and retail sales, translating to at least 74,000 lost jobs for Americans in 2011, the Coalition said. By 2015, the cumulative impact will translate to a $152 billion impact, with 378,000 "lost person years of work." (A chart from the report, above)

“The last thing American families and the US economy needs is more jobs at risk from misguided government action," said Dan Jaffe, EVP, Association of National Advertisers and Sensible Food Policy Coalition spokesperson at the press conference. “These advertising restrictions will put thousands of good paying jobs at risk..."

The Obama Administration's nutrition policy will lose jobs for Americans, is the not-so-subtle message from the Coalition. In the report, in its press release, and in interviews, members of the Coalition are referring to the guidelines as FTC "regulations."

"The food and beverage industry is bracing for the possibility of the guidelines being treated as regulatory policies," the report notes, and the accompanying press release also refers to the guidelines as "regulations."

Davidson said that this is because the guidelines are de facto regulations. When a powerful agency such as FTC or FDA issues "guidelines," it is taken by corporations as regulation, Davidson said, pointing to many instances when this has been the case. The scramble begins to change corporate practices, he added, and noted that this amps up the problems industry has with the "regulations," because they weren't voted on by Congress. He also pointed out that the guidelines were actually supposed to be a report to Congress on the relationship between food marketing to children and the prevalence of obesity, not a series of guidelines for limiting advertising content based on ingredients in foods.

Davidson said no study has shown that eliminating ads for foods with certain nutrition content has any impact on reducing obesity. He also called the proposal an "electro magnet for plaintiffs," and said it will kick the door open for lawsuits against media and food companies, as well as allow for TV stations and production companies to be cited for violating FTC regulations.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association joins the campaign...
The Grocery Manufacturers Association has joined forces with the Sensible Food Policy Coalition as an "honorary member," Davidson said, adding that GMA shares the goal of having the proposal withdrawn. GMA was an early supporter of Mrs. Obama's efforts; last year chairman Rick Wolford, CEO of Del Monte Foods Co., hailed Let's Move! as "a watershed moment in the fight against obesity." GMA is now led by a different chairman, and has been publicly criticizing the FTC guidelines, as has the US Chamber of Commerce, questioning both its viability in terms of health initiatives and denouncing it for impinging on freedom of speech. Some Republican lawmakers and a few Dems have also denounced it.

Two of the members of the Sensible Food Policy Coalition--PepsiCo and Kellogg's--last year partnered with Mrs. Obama for the Let's Move! campaign; they were part of a different coalition of major food corporations that pledged to eliminate more than a trillion unhealthy calories from America's food chain.

The proposal has also received lauds from health and nutrition advocates, including The American Academy of Pediatrics, which just released a policy statement in support, calling for the total elimination of junk food and fast food advertising aimed at children. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust For America's Health last week released the annual "F as in Fat" report, which monitors obesity rates by state, and called on food corporations to adopt the guidelines. The Center for Science in the Public Interest also supports the guidelines, and issued a statement on Friday blasting Dunn for her efforts to "actively undermine" the Administration she previously worked for.

"Anita Dunn and her firm should be ashamed of themselves for leading the food industry’s panicky efforts to quash the Obama administration’s reasonable and voluntary nutrition guidelines proposed for foods marketed to children," said Nutrition Policy Director Margo Wootan.

Like the Sensible Food Policy Coalition, Mrs. Obama has also used economic arguments for the Let's Move! campaign, but hers, of course, were designed to encourage support for obesity policy. Transforming America's obesogenic culture will save about $150 billion in health care costs annually, Mrs. Obama has said, and marketing and selling healthier foods can be an economic boon to corporations. America's largest grocer, Walmart, has taken the First Lady's pledge to heart, and partnered with her campaign, creating the five-year Nutrition Charter.

"Walmart made the changes that it made partially because they wanted to be part of "Let's Move" but they were seeing their markets shift," Mrs. Obama said. "This is a business move for them and we know it. They said more of their customers are coming and looking for healthier options because fortunately demand is changing."

FTC's proposal in brief...
The principles issued by FTC have two basic tenets: Food advertising and marketing aimed at children up to age 17 should encourage them to choose foods that "make meaningful contributions to a healthful diet from food groups including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk products, fish, extra lean meat and poultry, eggs, nuts or seeds, and beans."

Additionally, the saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars, and sodium in foods marketed to children should be "limited to minimize the negative impact on children’s health and weight."

The principles are in keeping with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and FTC is proposing that the food industry gets on board with the self regulation by 2016; after that year, any food that contains any trans fat, more than one gram of saturated fat, more than 210 milligrams of sodium or more than 13 grams of added sugar per serving should not be advertised to children.

For sodium, the proposal includes interim targets for 2016 and final targets for 2021.

*Photo by Pete Souza/White House, shot in October of 2009. Deputy Chief of Staff Mona Sutphen is in the center of photo.