First Lady enlists muppets, corporate interests in food fight


When First Lady Michelle Obama makes an announcement today about marketing healthier foods to children, she'll be accompanied by the popular Sesame Street characters Elmo and Rosita–and the less well known, albeit more powerful, representatives of the Produce Marketing Association, a trade group, and Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonprofit founded by Obama herself, which has strong corporate support.

The announcement comes on the heels of an industry summit and major speech Obama gave in late September, in which the first lady made her  strongest statement in recent years about advertising practices aimed at children. "You know that our kids are like little sponges," Obama told the meeting of food industry executives. "But they don't yet have the ability to question and analyze what they're told."

But Obama's words then, and those today, came after a major lobbying push upended a government effort to publish voluntary guidelines on marketing food to children, and led to a weaker regime in which the industry regulates itself.

And it wasn't Elmo doing the lobbying: Food industry groups, joined by some who make money from their ads, led the charge. In the newest round, Obama is enlisting the self-interests of other corporate groups that might benefit from her push for healthier living.

The Produce Marketing Association, for example, represents the vegetable and fruit industries, whose products are a staple in the "My Plate" guide that the Agriculture Dept. publishes. The group and is an active player on Capitol Hill and in the federal agencies, reporting spending of nearly $300,000 on lobbying last year. It was one of the groups that met with a White House regulatory agency over implementation of a major new food safety law–a separate inititiave from the issues surrounding marketing food to kids–before rules were even proposed by the Food and Drug Administration. 

Like all nonprofit organizations, Partnership for a Healthier America, which has assets of $4.5 million, is not required to disclose its donors. Obama founded the group as an adjunct to her "Let's Move!" campaign; the mission is to work with the private sector to combat childhood obesity. But the group's corporate partners, listed on the website, include such companies as fitness shoe and clothing manufacturers Nike and Reebok, and the Wal-Mart retail behemoth.


The First Lady and the White House have come under strong criticism by consumer groups and some lawmakers for being soft on the food industry. When the Federal Trade Commission and several health agencies proposed voluntary guidelines for marketing food for kids after Congress mandated they do so in a 2009 budget bill, the food and media industries launched a major lobbying campaign in Congress and the White House to quash them. Among the companies that reported lobbying on the regulations were Nestle, Kellogg, Viacom, McDonalds, General Mills, and Time Warner.

During the course of the controversy, nearly a third of the entire Senate and 40 percent of the House, both Democrats and Republicans, wrote to federal agencies protesting the regulations. Only three lawmakers, all Democrats, wrote in favor of the guidelines–Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. An umbrella coalition, the Sensible Food Policy Coalition, hired Anita Dunn, a former Obama White House aide, to help with public relations. Food industry executives met with high ranking White House officials such as Valerie Jarrett making their case against the voluntary regulations. 

Industry vastly prefers to regulate itself, and a group of food industry groups have come up with voluntary guidelines that are not as tough as those originally proposed by the Federal Trade Commission. The Center for Public in the Science Interest, a consumer advocacy group, noted in a press release last month that despite industry efforts, some 70 percent of ads on Nickelodean are for unhealthy foods.

Photos source: USO Flickr account.