- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2003

The world’s largest food manufacturer, Kraft Foods Inc., yesterday said it will reduce fat and shrink portion sizes in its products to fight global obesity and avoid falling victim to a wave of obesity-related lawsuits.

Kraft Foods is the latest major food company to feel the heat from a cadre of lawyers who have vowed to fight obesity throughout the world by targeting corporations, and even schools, with expensive litigation.

McDonald’s Corp. paid more than $15 million in settlements and in May set up a worldwide health initiative and advisory council to stave off lawsuits.

Other major food companies likely will follow suit with smaller portions and new labeling policies, industry groups say.

The Northfield, Ill., maker of Oscar Mayer hot dogs and Oreo cookies will reduce single-serving and vending-machine portion sizes, print more nutritional information on its packets, and end all in-school marketing, which includes promotional events and giveaways.

Kraft, which is owned by Altria Group Inc., also will review products sold in schools and provide healthier choices.

The dramatic change in labeling and marketing standards has been in the works for a few years and will start next year, said Kraft Foods spokesman Michael Mudd.

He said it was too early to estimate the cost of the initiative or how the smaller packages would be priced. Mr. Mudd said the changes are not a direct response to the threat of litigation.

“First and foremost, we did this because it’s the right thing to do for our customers. Now if these steps discourage a plaintiff or attorney from future litigation against out products, then so much the better,” Mr. Mudd said.

In May, California lawyer Stephen Joseph sued Kraft for not disclosing amounts of trans fatty acids, which are nonessential to the body, in its Oreo cookies. Mr. Joseph dropped the lawsuit several days later, saying it was a publicity stunt.

Kraft now plans to disclose information on trans fat as well as market an Oreo free of trans fat next year, Mr. Mudd said. The food company also will form a council of dietitians and health specialists to advise it about additional information that should be included on packages.

One idea is issuing ratings on the amount of physical activity needed to burn the calories in the food, Mr. Mudd said.

More detailed labeling and smaller portions also may be coming, industry advocates say.

“You can expect to see other food companies respond to the marketplace like this,” said Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America Inc., a Washington, D.C., trade organization.

Kraft’s new guidelines are designed to put more responsibility on consumers by educating them on their food choices, said Michael Licata, president and chief executive officer of the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association, a global trade group.

Evan Morris, a food industry analyst with global financial services firm UBS, said Kraft was “getting ahead of the curve of what will likely be mandated regulations” on advertising to children and nutritional labeling.

But trial lawyers filing obesity-related lawsuits against fast-food companies say manufacturers are doing too little to inform the public about healthier eating habits.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but major food producers will need to do more to get Americans to eat less,” said Anthony Robbins, board chairman of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, a Boston-based organization promoting obesity litigation.

Mr. Robbins said Kraft’s plans have not altered the institute’s objective to target companies in the $1 trillion U.S. food industry that market to children or fail to disclose fatty substances in their products.

Victor Schwartz, a general counsel with the American Tort Reform Association, a Washington, D.C., organization promoting liability reform, countered that the Kraft initiative would make the case for liability harder to prove.

“This move upsets the apple cart for these trial lawyers because it makes it harder for them to vilify food companies as they have in the past with tobacco companies,” Mr. Schwartz said.

Four big tobacco companies, which already had begun printing warning labels on their products and reducing advertising, agreed in 1998 to pay $246 billion to fund smoking prevention and cessation programs nationwide.

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