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Published March 22, 2010, 07:44 AM

First lady meets with food makers

WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama on March 17 challenged the Grocery Manufacturers Association and its member companies to join her in fighting childhood obesity.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama on March 17 challenged the Grocery Manufacturers Association and its member companies to join her in fighting childhood obesity.

In a speech to a GMA science forum, Obama urged the grocery manufacturers to join the voluntary labeling campaign FDA is expected to roll out this fall, to lobby for the reauthorization of the child nutrition programs this year. She also noted that the administration favors a $10 billion increase in the budget for child nutrition over 10 years and putting nutrition controls on all foods sold in schools, including those in vending machines and a la carte lines in lunch rooms.

Praise and prodding

Obama praised the grocery manufacturers for reformulating some of their products to reduce calories, sodium, fat and sugar, but she also urged them “to move faster and farther” to affect the lives of small children.

She called for “clear, consistent, front-of-the-package labels.” Recalling her own days as a working wife and mother, Obama said, “The last thing I had time to do was to stand in a grocery store aisle squinting at ingredients that I couldn’t pronounce to figure out whether something was healthy or not

. . . . Parents shouldn’t need a magnifying glass and a calculator to make healthy choices for their kids.”

Obama took a tough line on some food companies’ ways of complying with anti-obesity goals. Coming up with healthier foods requires creativity and effort, she said, “but what it doesn’t mean is taking out one problematic ingredient only to replace it with another. While decreasing fat is certainly a good thing, replacing it with sugar and salt isn’t. And it doesn’t mean compensating for high amounts of problematic ingredients with small amounts of beneficial ones — for example, adding a little bit of Vitamin C to a product with lots of sugar, or a gram of fiber to a product with tons of fat doesn’t suddenly make those products good for our kids.”

Promoting healthiness

She urged the grocery manufacturers to put their marketing dollars behind the healthy foods they are making. A study found that last year, while there were fewer food ads in children’s programming, more than 70 percent of foods marketed to kids were still among the least healthy, with less than 1 percent being among the most healthy, she said.

“When you put money into reformulating a product to make it healthier, do you then invest enough in marketing that product to kids and parents? Or is most of the marketing budget still going to the less-healthy versions?”

She added, “You know what gets their attention. You know what makes that lasting impression. You know what gets them to drive their parents crazy in the grocery store. And I’m here today to ask you to use that knowledge and that power to our kids’ advantage. I’m asking you to actively promote healthy foods and healthy habits to our kids.”

Obama said there was a precedent for the industry to get behind these reforms because the food industry had backed the 1906 Food and Drug Act, which increased public trust in the food industry.

GMA said in a statement that it’s backing the White House anti-obesity campaign and has committed itself to reversing obesity, particularly child obesity, by 2015. The statement also said that GMA will cooperate with FDA on the front-of-the-product labeling campaign, but not address the other issues she raised.