At a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing Wednesday, opponents of the marketing guidelines said they would cost the nation thousands of jobs and do little to fight obesity among children.
"These are unprecedented and extreme proposals," testified Dan Jaffe, exec VP for government relations for the Association of National Advertisers. "These guidelines need to be formally withdrawn and taken back to the drawing board."
While the administration insists the recommendations are only suggestions that food companies would adopt voluntarily, Mr. Jaffe called them a "thinly disguised attempt at backdoor regulations."
Many lawmakers also pushed back on the administration's plan.
"This appears to be a first step toward Uncle Sam planning our family meals," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.
The guidelines proposed by the government set maximum levels of fat, sugars and sodium, among other requirements, and could affect advertising on TV, in magazines and on the internet -- companies followed them. Food firms spend at least $1.6 billion a year to advertise their products to children, according to Federal Trade Commission figures based on a 2008 study.
In 2009, Congress asked the FTC, the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop a report on food marketing to children. The interagency working group released its recommendations in July, prompting about 29,000 comments, many from the food and advertising industries.
David Vladeck, head of the FTC, said this week he is willing to tone down the working group's preliminary recommendations by lowering the top end of the targeted age group from 2 to 18 years to 2 to 11. In response to industry complaints, Mr. Vladeck has also reversed an earlier recommendation that companies whose food products don't meet the nutrition guidelines abandon kid-friendly brand icons, like the face of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, Tony the Tiger.
Mr. Vladeck also said the administration isn't finished revising its proposal and is "in the midst of making significant revisions."
But the offer to make further changes failed to placate administration critics.
Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., said the guidelines would outlaw many wholesome foods, like low-fat yogurt, whole-wheat bread and 2%-milk, and are inconsistent with nutrition standards for school lunch programs.
"The [interagency working group] should completely withdraw these recommendations and do what they were instructed to do by Congress -- conduct a study and report the findings of the study and their recommendations to Congress," he said.
Some lawmakers criticized the administration for failing to take the economic impact of their proposal into consideration. Others said the guidelines would open the door to lawsuits from consumers.
Mr. Vladeck said there should be no concern the voluntary guidelines would be the basis of litigation against the food industry. He also said he had no authority to create regulations that would force the food industry to change its marketing plans.
"I can't stress enough that these are voluntary guidelines," he said.
Elaine Kolish, VP of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative at the Council of Better Business Bureaus, testified that self-regulation is steadily improving the foods in child-directed advertising.
While "no causal link has been established" between advertising and child obesity, Ms. Kolish said, 17 leading food companies are voluntarily changing advertising campaigns targeting kids.
Mr. Vladeck said efforts by the Council of Better Business Bureaus and others have "narrowed the gap" but don't go far enough.
House Republicans are trying to delay the release of final guidelines by trying to pass legislation that would require further study of their impact. If they are not successful, a final draft of the standards could come by the end of the year.