Childhood Obesity, Op-Eds

The Slippery Slope of “Voluntary” Guidelines

As parents across the country prepare to send their children back to school, the all-important question, “What should I put in the lunchbox?” looms.  And the federal government just might have something to say about that.

For example, you might not want to pack PB&J. Although it’s a perennial favorite of kids and parents, an overzealous cadre of federal regulators has just issued proposed “guidelines” for youth nutrition that put peanut butter on a lengthy list of foods deemed unacceptable to market to children and, therefore, possibly unacceptable to be served in schools

This Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG), comprised of the US Department of Agriculture, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and the Centers for Disease Control, was charged by Congress with the task of studying the issue of childhood obesity and the marketing of foods to children and adolescents.  It proposed “voluntary” guidelines now being considered that will undermine parental authority, place a so-called “voluntary” marketing ban on the marketing of numerous healthy foods like cereals and yogurts to children, and inflict economic harm on American consumers, American agriculture and the food industry, among many other sectors of the American economy.

These new guidelines are supposedly “voluntary,” but don’t be fooled. The federal government under both Democratic and Republican Administrations has long been engaged in an egregious and unconstitutional regulatory power grab. The strategy simply is to saddle disfavored industries with regulations disguised as “voluntary,” and therefore not be subject to the normal rulemaking process and judicial review.

Take the notorious 2009 recommendations by a federal panel that women get mammograms only every other year, rather than annually, and beginning at age 50 rather than 40. The panel’s reasoning was that frequent mammograms were resulting in unnecessary biopsies, causing unneeded anxiety and ultimately physically harming women.

As to which bad outcome a woman would prefer to run the risk of — a false positive on a mammogram or a missed early-stage diagnosis when breast cancer is most treatable – the panel was characteristically obtuse. Yet “recommendations” of this sort are enormously influential with policy makers and health insurance companies, which could try to use them to determine what procedures to cover and when.

In the case of the IWG, perhaps the most insidious thing about these regulations is the insistence that they are merely “voluntary” guidelines.  Yet, when the combined muscle of the four most important regulatory agencies of the food industry offer “guidelines,” they’re making you an offer you can’t refuse.

The supposedly “voluntary” guidelines are also a clever way for government officials to bypass the standard regulatory process. As it stands, the government doesn’t have to prove that its “voluntary” guidelines are an effective way to combat childhood obesity.

Then there’s the collateral damage. Grocery manufacturers are keenly aware of the potentially enormous economic and employment consequences of the new guidelines. One study reports that the new regulations could destroy 74,000 jobs and cost $28.3 billion — in just the first year.

This is not smart government.  As with the debate on breast cancer screenings, when it comes to fighting childhood obesity, we simply cannot allow government agencies to skirt the normal rulemaking process and judicial review.   Worst of all, they do nothing to help the poor or those living in underserved communities and who are the most at risk of obesity. They don’t address issues like eradicating food deserts, access to affordable and healthy food, or promoting physical fitness in the war against childhood obesity.

Besides, there’s already a simple and effective guideline in place for kids: moms and dads know best.

Michelle D. Bernard is the chairman, founder, president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy and is an MSNBC political analyst.

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