Friday, September 16, 2011

What foods fail to meet new voluntary standards for marketing to children?

In response to a request from Congress, a federal interagency group has proposed new voluntary standards for what foods can be marketed to children (.pdf).

A food industry campaign believes the voluntary standards will become essentially mandatory in practice, raising the industry's fears of regulatory overreach and loss of first amendment rights.  Other legal experts on public health law and policy emphasize that the proposed standards really are voluntary.  My own instinct is to see voluntary standards as a reasonable compromise between empty wishes for self-regulation and heavier mandatory regulation.  So I am tempted to see the industry's legal concern as overwrought.

But that still leaves open the question of whether the proposed nutrition standards are too weak, just right, or too strict.  Marion Nestle says her initial reaction was the the proposals were "much too generous."  The food industry's "sensible food policy" coalition says the proposed standards would prohibit marketing for nearly all commonly consumed foods.  In other words, the industry thinks the nutrition standards are too strict.

Now, here comes the arcane and detailed part of the post.  The industry group listed 100 commonly consumed foods (.pdf), and claimed only 12 of them met the standards.  The acceptable foods included fresh fruits and vegetables.  The industry group's table lists 100 comparatively broad food categories (column A), and then picks a particular food within each category (column B), and then in most cases claims that the particular food failed to meet the federal proposal's voluntary standards.  Some of the failures seem totally reasonable.  For example, nobody thinks donuts or cake should count as healthy foods.  But, the industry group claimed the standards also excluded popular and reasonably healthy foods.  For example, in the category of "all family cereal," the industry picked one particular cereal, and said it would be "banned" because it had too much sodium. 

At first, I suspected the group was cheating, by picking "column B" foods that did not really represent the broader "column A" food category, but I was mistaken.  I suspected the group of picking unusually unhealthy foods that failed the standards, just to make the standards look unreasonable.  However, after questioning a representative of the sensible food policy coalition by telephone today, and working through the details for the cereal example, I had to retreat a bit.  For example, unsweetened cheerios and corn flakes really do fail the proposed voluntary standards for sodium in the long run, even though one could argue that it is possible to have a bowl of cheerios every day and still meet the Dietary Guidelines recommendation for sodium (the cheerios provide 190 mg of sodium per serving, relative to the daily recommendation of 1,500 mg).  In the short run, the proposed rules would be more permissive, allowing cheerios for a few years.  The long-run voluntary standards use a fairly strict criteria that the marketed foods should qualify as "low sodium," which excludes cheerios.

For myself, I would have been happy if the proposed voluntary standards had allowed cheerios and ruled out highly sweetened cereal.  Perhaps the federal interagency working group was pushing the envelope on the details of the nutrition standards?

No comments: