- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The federal government met with health officials and scientists yesterday in an ongoing series of discussions on the best way for food companies and the public to combat America’s obesity epidemic.

Agency chiefs and nutritionists suggested to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson a national walking program, a more defined food-labeling system and an agency designated for obesity, said department spokesman Bill Peers.

The meetings are part of a “cooperative effort to bring all groups together that have a stake in this growing problem,” Mr. Peers said.

They come as a group of trial lawyers targets food manufacturers, fast-food chains, ice cream parlors and public school systems with litigation for contributing to the growing rates of adult and childhood obesity.

More than 61 percent of adults and 13 percent of children nationwide are overweight or obese, making them susceptible to such diseases as hypertension, diabetes and certain cancers, according to U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona.

Mr. Thompson, who “does not believe lawsuits are the way to make true progress,” has talked with food companies and trade groupsassociations on ways to re-proportion serving sizes and offer healthier alternatives, Mr. Peers said.

Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Mark McClellan, who was at the meeting, yesterday released new guidelines allowing fewer restrictions for food manufacturers to make qualified health contentions about their products.

The new rules are part of a broader health initiative to educate consumers on nutritional eating, an FDA spokeswoman said.

Companies may petition the FDA with a claim of nutritional value in a product, and then the agency will check the truth in the assertion and rate its value. The health-claim labeling may include a letter ranking system, from A — for the most valid — to D, but the FDA is still reviewing the approach.

The effort will help food companies be more competitive in making healthier products, said Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a Washington trade group.

“Consumers are looking to the government and food companies for help in leading healthier lives, and food companies are responding,” she said, citing a growth in fat-free product lines.

Grocery chain Food Lion, following the lead of food manufacturer Kraft Foods Inc., yesterday began selling a store-label, sugar-free ice cream using Splenda Brand Sweetener, which has no gluten, a protein that about 15 percent of Americans cannot digest.

Mr. Peers said the meetings may accelerate the formation of a national walking program like America on the Move, which has signed upmore than 200,000 participants since the pilot program started in October.

America on the Move, funded by soda giant Pepsico Inc. and other groups, encourages eating 100 fewer calories daily and wearing a step counter to track a recommended 2,000 steps each day.

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