The junk food industry won a major victory yesterday, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture rejected a petition that it enforce its own competitive foods rule, which prohibits public schools from selling “foods of minimal nutritional value” during mealtimes in school cafeterias. The rule was designed to promote the health of school children, but enforcement today is lax to non-existent. In the petition, Commercial Alert requested simply that the USDA enforce the rule as written. But the USDA has said “No.”
Stanley C. Garnett, director of USDA’s Child Nutrition Division, wrote to Commercial Alert that “At this time, we do not intend to undertake the activities or measures you recommended in your petition.”
“It is outrageous that the USDA is refusing to enforce its own rules against selling junk food in public schools,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert. “They have turned their back on American children, who are suffering from an epidemic of obesity.”
The USDA’s decision comes just days after the Justice Department slashed the penalty it seeks in a lawsuit against the tobacco industry from $130 billion to $10 billion.
“Last week, the Bush administration caved in to tobacco industry, and this week they caved in to junk food industry,” Ruskin said. “For the Bush administration, big corporations come first, and our children’s health comes last.”
The USDA denied Commercial Alert’s petition for rule-making, despite overwhelming public support for restricting the sale of junk food to schoolchildren. A Wall Street Journal poll in February, 2005, found that 83% of American adults believe “public schools need to do a better job of limiting children's access to unhealthy foods like snack foods, sugary soft drinks and fast food.”
In March, the USDA admitted in a report that it does not know whether schools are complying with prohibitions against the sale of foods of minimal nutritional value during school mealtimes. The report stated, “it is unclear to what extent federal and state regulations [against the sale of foods of minimum nutritional value] are enforced at the local level”.
Foods of minimal nutritional value are defined as soda pop, water ices, chewing gum, and certain types of candies, such as hard candies, jellied candies, licorice and marshmallows.
Executives and lobbyists from companies that produce junk food for schoolchildren generously contributed to the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign. Rangers, who bundled at least $200,000 to the Bush/Cheney ’04 campaign, include:
- Jose P. “Pepe” Fanjul, vice chairman, president, and COO, Florida Crystals Corp., a top U.S. sugar producer;
- Richard F. Hohlt, Hohlt & Co., lobbyist for Altria, which owns about 85% of Kraft Foods;
- Robert Leebern Jr., president, federal affairs, Troutman Sanders, lobbyist for Coca-Cola; and,
- Barclay T. Resler, vice president for government and public affairs, Coca-Cola.
Pioneers, who bundled at least $100,000 to the Bush/Cheney ’04 campaign, include:
- Kirk Blalock, Fierce Isakowitz & Blalock, lobbyist for Coca-Cola Enterprises
- Marc Lampkin, Quinn Gillespie, lobbyist for Coca-Cola
- Joe M. Weller, chairman and CEO, Nestle USA
Junk food producers also gave large contributions to President Bush’s inauguration this year. Altria Corporate Services (majority owner of Kraft Foods) gave $250,000, while Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola gave $100,000 each.
In his State of the Union address, on February 2nd, President Bush told Congress, "Over the next several months, on issue after issue, let us do what Americans have always done, and build a better world for our children and our grandchildren."
“President Bush says he wants to help children, but his resolve has been pretty flabby where the junk food lobby is concerned.” Ruskin said. “This administration just hasn’t shown the gumption to stand up to these people. It talks Main Street but walks K Street,”
The refusal to enforce the competitive food rule is just the latest in a long series of favors for the junk food industry. For example, the Administration has opposed restrictions on junk food marketing to children. It worked hard to weaken the World Health Organization’s global anti-obesity strategy, and went so far as to question the scientific basis for “the linking of fruit and vegetable consumption to decreased risk of obesity and diabetes.”
Former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson even told members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association to “‘go on the offensive’ against critics blaming the food industry for obesity,” according to a November 12, 2002 GMA news release.
In January, Lynn Swann, chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, was paid to appear at a public relations event for the National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA), a vending machine trade group.
Commercial Alert’s petition to USDA is available at: http://www.commercialalert.org/fmnvpetition.pdf.
The USDA’s response to Commercial Alert’s petition is at: http://www.commercialalert.org/usdaresponse.pdf.
Commercial Alert is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy. For more information, see our website at: http://www.commercialalert.org.