Sept. 14, 2007 - After years of opposition, soda and soft drink manufacturers are now backing efforts for new federal rules restricting snacks and sugary drinks in schools, an industry representative says.
The shift comes as lawmakers in Washington prepare to debate a proposal touted by supporters as a step toward stemming rising rates of childhood obesity. The bill would force the government to update 35-year-old nutrition standards that allow the sale of sodas and low-nutrition snack food in vending machines and at a la carte counters.
Major soft drink manufacturers agreed last spring to a voluntary deal that takes sugared sodas and other drinks out of elementary and middle schools. But for years it has opposed efforts to make new standards part of national law.
The industry is no longer opposing a new national standard, said Susan Neely, president of the American Beverage Association, the trade group representing Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and other drink makers. The reason for the shift, she suggested, is that the nutritional requirements are unlikely to be much stricter than voluntary standards already endorsed by the industry.
“We are moving full-caloried soft drinks out of the nation’s schools,” Neely told reporters at a forum on the new proposals Friday. “It is basically a de facto national standard.”
A Senate committee is scheduled to begin debate on the standards early this fall. The rule would force the Department of Agriculture to bring nutrition guidelines for vending machines, snack counters, and other points of sale in line with those governing school lunches.
“In essence the framework is the same,” Neely said, referring to the proposed law and the voluntary standards being put in place by the industry. The standards restrict elementary and middle school vending machines and snack counters to selling milk, juice, and water.
The industry and lawmakers have not agreed on sales of higher-calorie soft drinks and sports drinks in high schools, she said.
"Discussions between our staff and the beverage industry on this effort are ongoing and we are hopeful to reach resolution, but we are not there yet," says Kate Cyrul, spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). He is the main proponent of new laws regulating snack food in schools.
At least 17 states have nutrition standards for food sold in schools, while several more are considering new rules, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the main group pushing for new standards, says school nutrition is a problem that should be addressed in Washington.
“Congress shouldn’t pass the buck on childhood obesity,” she says.
Agriculture legislation that passed the House in July did not include an update to school nutrition standards.