Those ‘Voluntary’ Rules for Food Companies are Anything But Voluntary


There’s been a lot of talk of late about the cost to industry of government regulation. The president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue, asserted at a job summit on Monday that recent government initiatives are “unjustified and uncalled for in a free society and a free economy” and are “killing American jobs.”

Case in point: a recent set of proposed “voluntary” principles for food manufacturers set out by the FTC and three other government agencies. The proposed guidelines have caused quite a stir in the food industry for their breadth, their impending chilling effect on commercial speech, and their likely economic costs (one analysis suggested the guidelines would do away with 75,000 jobs annually). In fact, in response to the “voluntary” principles, food manufacturers themselves have just announced their own, less stringent guidelines, in an effort to supplant the government’s efforts.

The government’s proposed principles were put together by the Interagency Working Group (IWG), a group established by congressional directive and composed of representatives from the FTC, Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control. The IWG was directed by Congress to develop principles to “guide industry efforts to improve the nutritional profile of foods marketed directly to children ages 2 to 17 years.”

Hence, a sweeping set of principles was published at the end of April “suggesting” that “[b]y the year 2016, all food products within the categories most heavily marketed directly to children should meet two basic nutrition principles. Such foods should be formulated to: (A) make a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet; and (B) minimize the content of nutrients that could have a negative impact on health and weight.” The report comes with detailed formulations of how to arrive at Principles A and B. It also comes with “proposed definitions of advertising, promotion, and other marketing activities targeting children ages 2-11 years and adolescents ages 12-17 years to which the nutrition principles would apply.”

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