Years ago, when I visited the Soviet Union, I walked by a grocery store. In the windows of the store there were only stacks of bare tin cans. Inside, the products were packaged with simple labels and there was typically only a single choice for each type of item. Food, like other things in the government-controlled economy, was not a freely marketed product. It was a necessity controlled and rationed by the government.
As the Iron Curtain crumbled, and citizens of former communist states travelled to the West, something you heard time and time again was how amazing the western grocery stores were. Stores filled with hundreds of brightly packaged stood in stark contrast to the heavily managed commissaries they had become accustomed to.
Millions of Americans work in the highly competitive food industry. American consumers like to eat, and this can be a problem when individuals make poor diet choices combined with lack of exercise. There is no doubt that our nation has a growing obesity problem.
In 2009, Congress created an Interagency Working Group composed of the Federal Trade Commission, the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Agriculture. This IWG was directed to study and issue a report to Congress concerning standards for marketing food to children.
Two years later, this report has not been sent. Instead of accomplishing the task set out before them, the IWG decided they should create "voluntary" standards for marketing food to children. Frankly, the standards they issued this summer would make American grocery stores look like those old Soviet Bloc stores.
When most people think about food marketing to children, they think of television commercials pushing sugary cereals. The IWG places restrictions on televised advertisements, but they also go much further and restrict food packaging. Packaging for foods that don't meet the IWG dietary guidelines would not be allowed to have attractively designed packages.
But they don't just stop at packaging. They call for restrictions on the actual shape of food. Since animal shapes may be especially appealing to children, foods could not be shaped like animals. Chocolate Easter Bunnies would be made extinct, along with gummy snacks and pasta shaped like cartoon characters.
The IWG's guidelines were established apart from any other agency rules for labeling healthy foods. At a hearing I chaired this week, a representative from the Campbell's Soup Company talked about some of their products that would be restricted by the guidelines. The FDA permits some of their soups to be labeled "healthy." However, these same soups could not be marketed to children under the IWG guidelines.
In fact, many healthy foods, like low-fat yogurts, some whole wheat breads, and 2 percent milk could not be marketed to those under the age of 17. Regular Cheerios wouldn't even meet the guidelines.
Since almost any food could be considered as marketed toward children, thousands of products could be subject to the new regulations. The changes could disrupt millions of jobs in the food, marketing, and advertising industries. The IWG has done no study of the impact their guidelines would have if widely adopted. They don't know whether products could be successfully modified, or whether jobs would be destroyed.
I have four young grandchildren. I'm concerned about their health. I want them to make good dietary and lifestyle choices. Personally, I think that their parents, not government bureaucrats, are in the best position to see that that happens.
The IWG has been regulating in a bubble. Now that these guidelines have been made public, they have begun to understand how absurd they are. They recently indicated that they would not try to ban decades-old advertising icons like Tony the Tiger. I believe what the IWG really needs to do is withdraw the guidelines.
We need them to do the task Congress originally assigned them, a report to Congress. Right now, they are a bureaucracy run amuck. While they hide behind the claim that the guidelines are "voluntary," we know how quickly that can change. Government red tape is not going to reduce obesity. It will only reduce our vibrant free market.