WASHINGTON, D.C. - Some of the world's biggest food companies won a partial victory in a battle over junk food advertising for children and now they are going for the kill.
Food giants such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Kraft and advertising companies successfully pressed U.S. regulators to acknowledge they may weaken proposed guidelines that bar junk food advertisements aimed at children and younger teens. Their success alarmed campaigners fighting obesity.
The Federal Trade Commission signaled in mid-October it would likely drop a plan for voluntary guidelines banning junk food ads to children 17 and under, instead lowering the age limit to 11 and under. Final guidelines are expected by year's end.
The World Health Organization previously called for mandatory rules to limit children's exposure to junk food ads and the American Academy of Pediatrics in September urged regulators "in the strongest possible terms to make the nutrition principles and marketing definitions mandatory."
But the food companies have waged a powerful campaign to avoid any restrictions. The industry took its complaints as high as the White House, just as Michelle Obama has been making an issue of growing vegetables to encourage children to eat better.
Ten major corporations and trade organizations list the issue as something they are lobbying hard on and some have millions of dollars to spend, according to lobby disclosures.
"This is the kind of issue that has many, many, many people in the food and beverage industry ... very concerned," said Dan Jaffe, spokesman for the Association of National Advertisers.
The loss of ads have worried companies such as Coca-Cola Co, which has spent $4.74 million to lobby so far this year; Kraft Food Inc, which has spent $2.09 million; and PepsiCo Inc, which has spent $2.61 million, among others.
Trade groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which spent $2.98 million so far this year, and the National Restaurant Association, which spent $2.1 million, say ditching the guidelines is important to their members.
The issue is expected to come up on November 15, when the Senate Commerce Committee holds hearings to consider the nomination of Jon Leibowitz to remain head of the FTC.
The Agriculture Department similarly signaled it was likely to shift nutritional standards for foods that could be advertised to children, dropping a requirement that they contain a healthy element such as whole grains. It has instead lauded a proposal from the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a food industry group, that puts limits on salt, fat and sugar.
Both the CFBAI and the Agriculture Department say the same foods that would be banned for advertising to children under one standard, would also be banned under the other while the CFBAI standard is easier to implement, according to both the Agriculture Department and the CFBAI.
A long list of foods satisfy the CFBAI, but would fail the original federal standard -- including SpaghettiO's Meatball, several flavors of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms, says Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Although the administration has signaled it will likely weaken the guidelines, food manufacturers and their lobbyists are pressing for a total scrapping of the federal plan.
"There's no bigger priority for the food sector," said Scott Faber of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
One food industry official, said corporate lobbying had reached well into the White House and that his CEO had talked to officials there about the issue.
Health groups have also lobbied the White House hard; a dozen met with the administration last week.
"We stressed that they should not put a White House/administration stamp of approval on the CFBAI standards as they are," said Wootan.
Under pressure, some companies have reduced the sugar, salt and fat in foods made for children.
General Mills Inc's Lucky Charms and Cinnamon Toast Crunch both have 10 grams of sugar in a 3/4 cup serving, while Cheerios has 1 gram of sugar in a 1 cup serving.
Kraft's Cadbury, Hershey Co, Mars and Nestle Ltd have already stopped advertising to children.
Kraft stopped advertising Kool-Aid and Oreos to children in 2005 and has reduced sugar and salt in some foods, but denied this was done to head off potential government action. Kraft has spent $2.09 million on lobbying this year.
But there are still plenty of high-sugar cereals to tempt children. While Kellogg's Rice Krispies has just 4 grams in a 1-1/4 cup serving, Frosted Flakes has 11 grams of sugar in 3/4 cup. A cup of Froot Loops Marshmallow has 14 grams.
Kellogg, which did not respond to email or telephone requests for an interview, has liberally rewarded its friends in Congress.
Rep. Fred Upton, who harshly criticized the administration effort at a recent hearing, has received $58,052 from Kellogg since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks corporate influence in politics.
A total of $5,000 of that came during this election cycle, according to their data. The National Restaurant Association also gave him $5,000, while Coca-Cola donated $2,500.
Kellogg gave another IWG skeptic, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, $1,000 in this election cycle. Blackburn also received $2,000 from Campbell Soup Co and $1,000 from PepsiCo.
The money spent lobbying does not erase the fact that children are ill-equipped to distinguish fact from marketing fiction, says Dr. Steven Abrams, a nutrition expert with the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"I personally would suggest that we should make it easier for kids to make the right choices. Kids are easily influenced by what they see," said Abrams.
But food and advertising companies consider even the watered-down proposal a threat. Not all U.S. food companies have signed onto the industry initiative, but all would be subject to the guidelines.
"We made some progress," said ANA's Dan Jaffe. "Victory is far from where we are."
(Reporting by Diane Bartz; editing by Andre Grenon)