(Ericka Andersen/The Heritage Foundation) – First Lady Michelle Obama’s obsession with “childhood obesity” has bothered many since it began two years ago, especially those who think that White House nagging of parents should be reserved for more pressing issues. Now it is getting more serious, with food regulators starting to infringe on the free speech rights of advertisers.
In the latest upset, four federal agencies known as the Interagency Working Group (IWG) have delivered a plan to drastically censor food advertisers with products deemed to be “too high” in sodium, sugar, or fat that cater to any viewing audience between the ages of two and 11. These advertisers would lose key slots during some of America’s most popular shows, like American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and Glee—simply because the nanny state is “uncomfortable” with what they are selling.
The IWG, formed within the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act to study childhood obesity and offer possible solutions, has gone far beyond their descriptive reach. Now, perfectly reasonable companies may be penalized severely.
The regulators plan to get away with this by disguising their rules as “voluntary guidelines.” In reality, the guidelines are anything but optional, according to food manufacturers affected by them.
As Heritage’s Diane Katz explains:
The restrictions are voluntary in name only. Food manufacturers can hardly ignore “recommendations” from the very federal agencies that exercise regulatory authority over their every move. It is akin to a cop asking for ID or to search one’s vehicle: While the law treats such citizen cooperation as voluntary, most individuals would not view it as such, nor would the police look kindly on anyone who denies their requests.
It’s not just Twinkies and cookies that will be affected, either. Anything deemed to have a little too much sodium or fat will be tested under the new rules, including foods whose very production requires a high sodium content (like pickles) and those that are naturally high fat (like peanuts).
As Katz wrote, “Nutritional staples such as Cheerios, peanut butter, and yogurt are verboten under the proposed standards, which effectively constitute a government-regulated grocery list.”
The regulations hit traditional favorites where it hurts. In turn, the free market and consumer choice is manipulated to fit a misplaced government agenda that doesn’t solve the problem.
Even if the feds are well-intentioned, their action plan isn’t grounded in reliable research. The whole point of the regulations is to curb the growing epidemic of childhood obesity—but the Institute of Medicine found no link between advertisements and children’s food choices.
According to Katz, children have seen about 50 percent less food advertising in the last six years than before that time—yet obesity rates continue to climb. Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan attributes the obesity problem to “physical inactivity”—not caloric intake. In fact, McClellan noted that children’s calorie intake has remained about the same for the last 20 years.
Not only do regulations hinder the market and censor speech; they hurt the businesses behind the labels. Sara Lee CEO Christopher J. Fraleigh recently spoke on the overextended regulations, which will hurt his business in particular:
A turkey sandwich made with Sara Lee fat-free lean turkey meat, we would not be able to advertise that on venues, be it the Superbowl or anything that would have a significant child audience, because the product is a little bit too high in sodium…. Current regulation of advertising toward children is a perfect example of regulation that just goes way too far.
The Obama Administration’s food regulators think that if you give them an inch, they can take a mile. But when free speech is on the cutting board, they will certainly hear from the people, and the people will not stand for it.