White House Insists Campaign Against Children's Cereal Is Voluntary

After spelling out the latest government offensive against cigarettes—including warning labels featuring graphic pictures of the negative side of smoking—two top administration officials backed off from suggestions that the same heavy hand of government would be applied to makers of cereals, chocolate bars and other foods favored by children.

Both Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg insisted to HUMAN EVENTS at yesterday’s White House press briefing that any government-backed suggestions on the contents of cereals and desserts were nothing more than that.  As Hamburg told us, “These are voluntary suggestions.”

But Sebelius did leave open the door to the possibility, perhaps sometime in the future, of some government involvement with the food industry in determining what healthy eating is.

“I think this [sic] is some space,” the HHS secretary said, “that is going to continue to have a robust conversation, because, again, it has a lot to do with underlying health costs and overall health of our nation.”

Our questions to Sebelius and Hamburg came on the same day that HUMAN EVENTS’ congressional correspondent Audrey Hudson reported a government proposal with suggestions for retooling the recipes in cereals and other foods that are favorites of children.

Citing the complaints by food officials that these suggestions are ostensibly voluntary but are actually a case of “change the recipe or else,” HUMAN EVENTS asked Sebelius whether she saw it that way and whether there would be enforcement of the suggestions.

There is a lot of effort under way in the area of nutrition and certainly aimed at the obesity epidemic that is affecting one out of every three children and adults in this country,” she replied.

“So whether it’s the Let’s Move initiative, which is doing a lot of work voluntarily to get companies to begin to look at both sodium and sugar content and trans-fat, or conversations going on in the industry itself to look at reformatting their products, or Walmart, who [sic] is now saying that as a major purchaser, they only want suppliers who meet certain standards, or the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], which is looking at sodium, and the FDA, which is convening conversations around nutrition qualities—the reformatting of the new food plate that was announced by the Department of Agriculture, and getting rid of the pyramid and looking at what healthy eating is, I think this is some space that is going to continue to have a robust conversation, because, again, it has a lot to do with underlying health costs and overall health of our nation.”

The FDA’s Hamburg also weighed in on our question as to whether her agency’s involvement consisted of “suggestions” at this point.

“Yes,” she replied.  “And what you’re referring to is a request actually from Congress, several years ago, I think, to the FTC [Federal Trade Commission], to look at issues of food advertising to children, knowing that, of course, how we eat, what we eat, does really matter for health.  The FTC put together a working group that included the FDA and other components of government to look at some of the issues, and voluntary recommendations to industry have been put forward for further discussion.  And it’s an important discussion to have, because we need to work with industry to be able to provide consumers—parents and children, all of us—with the best possible information about nutrition and health so that we can all make good choices in terms of promoting and protecting health.”

As to the complaint from the Grocery Manufacturers of America about the suggestions, Hamburg insisted:  “These are voluntary recommendations.  And we work closely in many domains with the Grocery Manufacturers of America and other industry representatives, because how food is formulated—whether it’s sodium, sugar, fat—really does matter for issues such as obesity and heart disease and diabetes and other things.  The food industry recognizes that there are ways that they can improve and make more attractive the food products that they’re developing.  We certainly have a vested interest in that as a public health agency, and we want to work with them on that.”

CBS-TV’s Chip Reid followed up with a question as to whether food packages would contain “graphic images of clogged arteries and fat-encrusted hearts on really bad food..”

“Well, again, I think tobacco is unique,” Sebelius said.  “It is a product that is the number one cause of preventable death.” 

But she quickly added that “as you look at the underlying health care costs, where we spend 75 cents of every health care dollar treating chronic disease—what are the areas, if you want to lower health costs and have a healthier country, that you can focus on?  Certainly, tobacco and obesity become two of the major underlying causes.  So the work around obesity and healthier, more nutritious eating, more exercise, will continue to be, I think, an ongoing focus.”

“No graphic images on our food in the future?” pressed Reid.

“Just lots of celery stalks and broccoli,” shot back Sebelius.