September 15, 2004

Legislative Activity

September 15, 2004

House Government Reform Subcommittee on Human Rights & Wellness
U.S. Approach to Obesity

The House Government Reform Subcommittee on Human Rights and Wellness held a hearing on the U.S. approach to reducing obesity on September 15. Witnesses included members of the Center for Disease Control, the USDA, North American Association of the Study of Obesity , the American Obesity Association and the Grocery Manufacturers of America. Subcommittee Chairman Dan Burton (R-IN) presided.

In his opening statement the Chairman said that the purpose of the hearing was to consider the various government programs already in place and to determine their effectiveness but the hearing eventually turned into an attack on food advertising and food manufacturers. The Chairman commented that the subcommittee should make sure the food industry is making nutritious foods and not “foods that will kill us.”

California representatives Henry Waxman (D) and Diane Watson (D) centered their comments on changes in the USDA's food programs and questioned the effects of limited local decision-making on the use of funds for obesity-reducing projects. In particular, Rep. Waxman expressed irritation that the government was prohibited from “belittling” particular products and demanded he be sent a full explanation of how that mandate was developed. Chairman Burton joined in that he hoped the mandate was not a concession to food companies and that he would like to see the “belittling” prohibition lifted. However, Reps. Waxman and Watson did not join in on advertising attacks.

Eric Bost, u ndersecretary for f ood, n utrition, & c onsumer s ervices o f the USDA testified that while there are no easy answers to the obesity problem, he believes the government's role should be to educate the public about what to eat and to exercise more. He noted that a parental influence is a key factor in children's decision making.

Alison Kretzer, director-scientific nutrition policy for the Grocery Manufacturers of America told the committee that food manufacturers are reformulating some foods to make them more nutritious while maintaining the product's good taste. She reminded the committee that consumers will not purchase foods they do not enjoy and urged the government to encourage more personal responsibility, physical exercise and use of the food pyramid. Chairman Burton expressed exasperation at Kretzer's suggestion that personal responsibility play a role in reducing obesity and instead recommended the food industry begin a public service campaign.

Thomas Wadden of the North American Association of the Study of Obesity (NASO) stated that eating less and exercising more simply sounded like a solution to obesity and that other factors, including advertising, have not been factored in to the problem. He lauded the California regulation prohibiting soda in school vending machines and urged the committee to fund similar grassroots initiatives nationwide. Wadden went on to claim that children see an average of 10,000 food product ads a year and suggested that the ads might be to blame for obesity rates. He urged the committee to consider advertising and the use of media in the government plans to reduce obesity. Taking that figure from Wadden, Chairman Burton then said he was convinced by his testimony today that the government would have to do more than encourage exercise and reduced food consumption.

Turning his sites back on Kretzer and the food industry, Rep. Burton cited the 10,000 ad figure and asked if the food industry could do more PSAs. Kretzer responded that food companies are abiding by CARU's self-regulatory guidelines for advertising to children and are careful to show children participating in physical activity and eating appropriate portion sizes. The Chairman retorted that food ads never say “eat responsibly” as alcohol ads do and that the ad guidelines “ain't working.” The Congressman ended the exchange by suggesting the food industry would be well served to provide more PSAs to educate children because parents are not usually available to educate their children.

While the committee did not commit to any particular action as a result of the hearing, Chairman Burton's comments should serve as a warning that even traditionally free-market minded legislators are willing to restrict the market in an attempt to reduce obesity rates.