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Senators grilling FTC commissioner on obesity guidelines took campaign money from industry

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When Jon Leibowitz faced a Senate committee yesterday afternoon for a hearing on his renomination as commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), he got a grilling from several Senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, on a controversial issue: the agency’s proposed guidelines on advertising food to children, meant to help in the fight to reduce childhood obesity.

All of these senators have taken substantial sums in campaign contributions from food industry and media interests that have been lobbying against the proposed guidelines, which the food industry has charged go too far.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, asked Leibowitz if the guidelines are going to say “certain things should not be done that are actually considered healthy by (Health and Human Services) and (the US Department on Agriculture).”

One of her top donors, the National Restaurant Association, has reported spending $2.1 million lobbying this year; among the issues it lists is "Interagency Working Group on Marketing to Kids." In July the trade group called for the FTC to withdraw the guidelines all together, arguing they are "unduly strict and are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the restaurant industry."

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asked if a commercial featuring Tony the Tiger would violate the new guidelines--a fear raised by industry interests opposed to the guidelines. One of her top donors is the media firm Time Warner, which has reported spending $3.3 millon on lobbying this year, and lists the guidelines as one of its issues.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked Leibowitz to confirm that the guidelines will be voluntary, as opposed to mandatory. The Senator hails from Minnesota, home to General Mills, the manufacturer of kid-oriented cereals such as Cheerios and Lucky Charms. General Mills has sent nearly $65,000 to her campaign coffers over the years. The company has also reported spending $660,000 on lobbying so far this year, to lobby on the nutrition guidelines among several other issues.

The FTC guidelines, which the agency is issuing in conjunction with several other agencies, were mandated in a 2009 appropriations bill. Industry rallied against draft proposals, and recently the FTC indicated it would back down from many of its initial proposals. At the hearing today, Leibowitz continually emphasized the the guidelines are voluntary and unenforcable.