A coalition of advertising groups and members of the food industry are stepping up their fight against proposed nutrition guidelines issued earlier this year by the federal government.

In April, the Interagency Working Group – comprised of the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Department of Agriculture – released a preliminary report suggesting a set of guidelines for nutrition criteria on foods marketed to children and teenagers. While the proposed guidelines would be self-enforcing, groups like the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Association of National Advertisers, and honorary member the Grocery Manufacturers Association, as well as companies including General Mills, Kellogg, Time Warner, and Viacom, have joined together to object.

Calling themselves the “Sensible Food Policy Coalition,” the members have already spent $6.6 million lobbying against the proposed guidelines in the first quarter of 2011 and almost $60 million since the beginning of the Obama Administration, according to The Washington Post. In addition, various members of the Coalition filed comments on the proposed guidelines. In its comments, the ANA argued that the guidelines would amount to de facto regulations and would require “massive re-engineering of the entire food industry based on nutrition standards that go far beyond any ever approved by a government agency.”

The group argued that the guidelines would also violate the First Amendment rights of advertisers and food companies and would impact adults as well as children. For example, if 20 percent of a television show’s audience includes teens aged 12-17, it would be subject to the advertising restrictions in the guidelines. Programs like sports events would be covered by the guidelines and would therefore have to be treated as child-directed advertising, the ANA said.

The ANA called on the IWG to formally withdraw its proposals, calling its report “clearly ‘backdoor regulation’ by four extremely powerful government agencies that seek to accomplish a goal indirectly that could not be reached through normal rulemaking procedures. By using the coercive force of government agencies to suppress truthful advertising about a broad range of healthy, legal products for every segment of the public, the proposal clearly violates the First Amendment rights of both marketers and consumers. Worst of all, there is absolutely no discussion or proof that these massive changes in product formulation or marketing practices, which if carried out would cost the food, restaurant and media communities multi-billions of dollars, would actually have any direct or material impact on reducing childhood obesity rates in the United States.”

Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection David Vladeck responded to the industry’s efforts in a blog post. “Frankly, these folks might want to switch to decaf,” he commented, adding that the FTC has no plans to sue companies that do not adopt the proposed guidelines and disputing that the proposal is not regulation by the back door. He also took issue with the suggestion that the proposed guidelines violate the First Amendment. “A report to Congress containing recommended nutrition principles can’t violate the Constitution. A report is not a law, a regulation, or an order, and it can’t be enforced. While we hope companies voluntarily choose to adopt the principles (when finalized), there’s no legal consequence if they don’t. So there’s no effect on their free speech rights,” Vladeck wrote.

To read the Interagency Working Group’s report, click here.

To read the comments the ANA filed on the IWG’s report, click here.

Why it matters: In addition to the Coalition’s efforts to directly battle the government’s proposed guidelines, industry groups and food companies have also taken steps to self-regulate without government oversight. Earlier this month the Council of Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Food and Beverage Initiative announced new uniform criteria designed to further strengthen the efforts to self-regulate child-directed food advertising for its 17 members, including companies like McDonald’s Corp., Sara Lee, and Unilever. While the industry continues to fight any form of government regulation, the IWG plans to submit a final recommendation on its nutritional criteria to Congress by the end of the year.