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IWG Expected to Make Major Changes to Food Marketing, Nutrition Guidelines

The head of the Federal Trade Commission and the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health & Human Services have told concerned lawmakers that they expect there will be "significant changes" to an Interagency Working Group's (IWG) recommended food marketing and nutrition principles.

Those principles have yet to be made final recommendations to Congress, but when they were initially released for tire-kicking by the industry and others last April, there was immediate concern from food marketers and media companies that the principles were overbroad, overly restrictive, and swept up healthy foods by casting too wide a net.

In a letter dated Sept. 27 to House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and his Republican colleages, FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that they were still vetting the 29,000 comments it got on the draft principles, and anticipated making significant changes before they were finalized.

The Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Food Marketed to Children (Working Group), comprising representatives from the FTC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the FDA, and the USDA, recommended the new tough, but voluntary, food marketing guidelines to kids and teens last April and the Federal Trade Commission put them out for comment.

Those would include requiring foods marketed to kids to contain at least one of a list of healthy ingredients -- fruit, vegetable, whole grain, nuts, seeds -- and contain limited amounts of nutrients "with negative impact on health or weight," including limits on saturated fats, trans fat, added sugars and sodium.

The goal is to have all food marketed to kids meeting that standard by 2016. The foods it is targeting for alterations include "breakfast cereals; snack foods; candy; dairy products; baked goods; carbonated beverages; fruit juice and non-carbonated beverages; prepared foods and meals; frozen and chilled deserts; and restaurant foods."

The FTC conceded at the outset that the goals were "ambitious and would take time to put into place."

Leibowitz and company were responding to a call from House Republican leaders that the principles be rescinded saying they were a shot in the dark based on insufficient information that could take down healthy foods in the process and have unanticipated negative affects on health and the economy.

The legislators in their letter pointed to the IWG's own admission that, if fully implemented, a large percentage of food marketed to kids would not comply, whether they are "nutritionally disastrous" or can be labeled as healthy. "In short," they said, "implementation of the proposed Nutritional Principles would have an enormous immediate impact, and the IWG has no idea whether it is actually possible to make foods that would qualify, much less to make them enjoyable to eat."

They also complained that the guidelines would ban noncomplying foods in TV ads in shows were adults make up 70%-80% of the viewing audience, and disallow even charitable sponsorships of youth sports despite the positive effects on kids health. They say there is no sciencitif support for the idea that ad restrictions will reduce childhood obesity. And in a big no-no for Republicans, they say the guidelines do not take into account the economic impact of the new guidelines.

The letter from the legislators to Leibowitz et al had followed one to the same agencies the week before from law professors asking them not to back off the guidelines.