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Inertia at the Top

The USDA plays a central and often inconsistent role on the issue. It is the department behind the pyramid that shows Americans how fruits and vegetables should be consumed more than fatty foods, yet it supports companies' development of products that flout those guidelines. Pizza Hut's stuffed-crust pizza is among critics' ready examples.

"The conflict of interest is inherent in the USDA," said Kelly Brownell, professor of psychology at Yale University and co-founder of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. "Their main task is to promote agriculture and food, and their secondary task is to establish nutrition policy."

Congress has paid tepid attention to childhood obesity and repeatedly has rejected efforts of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to establish national standards for what is sold in schools outside of USDA-regulated hot meals. And a measure by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), to create a federal commission on childhood obesity prevention, among other actions, wasn't even debated.

A congressional request did prompt the Federal Trade Commission to order food and beverage companies to provide details on their activities and expenditures on food marketing to youth. A report should be public by fall. But whatever the commission recommends will not go further than self-regulation. Three decades after the FTC proposed a ban on TV ads for sugary, child-targeted foods that might cause dental problems, it remains severely restricted in any additional restraints it is allowed to impose.

By Congress.

Tomorrow: In Metro {vbar} Half the children in some District wards where produce is not readily available are overweight. Suburbs seem to have it all but are heavy anyway. In Health {vbar} Inside a controversial "fat school." In KidsPost {vbar} An unusual fitness plan in Silver Spring.

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