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Published: Tuesday, 10/18/2011

Better foods

Amid a strong pushback from the food industry, federal officials are making concessions instead of forging ahead with a multi-pronged effort to battle childhood obesity.

This year, new guidelines for marketing food to children were announced — a collaboration of the Federal Trade Commission, the Agriculture Department, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The voluntary standards set maximum levels for sugar, fat, and sodium content.

Officials asked companies not to market foods that exceed those limits to children between the ages of 2 and 17. The guidelines would apply to ads on television, in stores, on the Internet, and in other venues. Originally, they also would have applied to food packaging, but Tony the Tiger roared and officials backed off.

Although the guidelines are voluntary, food producers complained that they are too broad and could limit marketing of almost all of the nation’s favorite foods. The companies ramped up the rhetoric with claims that failure to comply with the standards would trigger some sort of retaliation against them.

Among the congressional Republicans who bought that message was Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He said the effort “appears to be a first step toward Uncle Sam planning our family meals.”

Such ridiculous hyperbole ignores the burgeoning national epidemic of childhood obesity, and the civic responsibilities of an industry that benefits from sales of cheap, unhealthy products.

About 17 percent of the nation’s children are obese, a rate three times higher than in 1980. The problem shows no signs of abating.

Clearly, the marketing of unhealthy products is not solely at fault. Parents, physicians, and communities all can pitch in to change habits, so children start getting more exercise and eating more healthy food in proper portions, while allowing for treats in moderation. Food manufacturers can help too.

This shouldn’t be a fight about marketing and advertising, focusing on the outside of food containers. It should be about their contents. Cutting down on the consumption of fat, sugar, and salt would be good for America’s children — and for grown-ups too.

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