The food and advertising industries have launched a multi-pronged campaign to squash government efforts to create voluntary nutritional guidelines for foods marketed to children.

Calling themselves the Sensible Food Policy Coalition, the nation’s biggest foodmakers, fast-food chains and media companies, including Viacom and Time Warner, are trying to derail standards proposed by four federal agencies. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also lent its lobbying muscle to the effort.

The guidelines are designed to encourage foodmakers to reduce salt, added sugars and fats in foods and drinks targeted to children. If their products did not meet the standards, foodmakers following the guidelines would refrain from advertising them to children.

The standards would be voluntary and not regulations; companies would not be required to meet them, and the government would have no way to enforce them.

Public-health experts say children, many of whom may lack the critical-thinking skills to understand advertising, are bombarded daily by television ads, Web sites, toy giveaways and cartoon characters promoting junk food. The food and beverage industry spends about $2 billion a year marketing directly to children.

The business community has portrayed the government’s guidelines as job-killing government overreach. Foodmakers said the voluntary guidelines are too severe and would prevent them from marketing even relatively healthy foods to children.

Congressional directive

Concerned about rising obesity rates among children, Congress in 2009 directed four agencies — the Federal Trade Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department — to propose nutritional standards that food and beverages should meet in order to be marketed to children. The initiative was a bipartisan effort led by then-Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

“We allow companies into our homes to manipulate children to want food that will make them sick,” said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is leading a coalition of public-health groups, including the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, in support of the guidelines.

The four federal agencies unveiled proposed standards in May and are accepting public comment through Thursday before finalizing them in a report to Congress.

The business community has dispatched lobbyists to Capitol Hill, held conference calls for media and produced a print ad extolling its past successes in lowering sugar, sodium and fat in many foods marketed to children.

The food industry developed its own standards in 2006 for products marketed to children, but critics say that those efforts at self-regulation lack uniformity and that results have been modest. Foodmakers are updating those industry standards and plan to release a new version of them by Thursday.

Advertising executives touted one economic analysis that suggested the government’s guidelines would kill 75,000 jobs annually, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce highlighted a legal scholar’s assessment that the voluntary standards would impede commercial speech.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) plans to insert a provision in the Federal Trade Commission budget to require the agency to weigh the costs before finalizing the guidelines.

“I’m always worried when voluntary guidelines get pushed, because I fear that it will become prescribed,” she said. “All we want is to do a cost-benefit analysis of the economic impact.”

Foodmakers said the voluntary guidelines could even prevent them from marketing foods such as yogurt and whole-wheat bread.

Wootan countered that the whole-wheat breads currently marketed to children would meet the proposed guidelines, as would most of the yogurt now aimed at children.

David Vladeck, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC, said he was surprised by the intensity of the reaction from industry and worried about “misinformation.” He posted a July 1 blog item that dissected 12 “myths” regarding the proposed guidelines.

“Congress directed the [agencies] to prepare these guidelines because much of the foods marketed directly to kids are not healthful,” Vladeck said in an interview. “If you look at rising rates of obesity, one in three kids is either overweight or obese. That percentage is growing. I don’t think anyone thinks the status quo is okay. We are trying to be useful in this debate. This is not stealth regulation in any way, shape or form.”

The industry coalition

Core members of the coalition — including General Mills, Kellogg, PepsiCo and Time Warner — spent $6.6 million on lobbying in the first quarter of this year, disclosure records show. Overall, records show, the coalition’s main members have spent nearly $60 million on lobbying since the start of the Obama administration.

One of the main players is media giant Viacom. It owns the Nickelodeon television network, whose animated characters — including Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants — are featured prominently on food products marketed to children. Viacom’s corporate parent spent nearly $1 million a month on lobbying in the first three months of this year, mostly on media and technology issues.

The coalition declined to release its budget for the campaign, which is being managed by Anita Dunn of the firm SKDKnickerbocker. Dunn served as White House communications director under President Obama in 2009 and is married to Robert F. Bauer, the former White House counsel.

Her work on behalf of foodmakers is surprising to some because first lady Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity her signature issue. In a speech last year to food manufacturers and retailers, the first lady urged them to curb the marketing of unhealthy foods.

“Our kids didn’t learn about the latest sweets and snack foods on their own,” she told the industry. “They hear about these products from advertisements on TV, the Internet, video games, schools, many other places.”

Consumer groups say the food lobby is aiming to capitalize on Dunn’s connections, particularly among Democrats more sympathetic to nutritional guidelines. The Center for Science in the Public Interest said Dunn and her firm “should be ashamed.”

Dunn dismissed the criticism.

“Without resorting to personal attacks, everybody should be able to work together towards a common goal here,” she said. “At the end of the day, combating childhood obesity is not a question of what gets advertised but a matter of more exercise, healthier eating habits and working together.”