Disney Will Announce Major Childhood Obesity Initiative

Walt Disney chairman Robert A. Iger, who today will announce with First Lady Michelle Obama a new set of nutritional standards for products that advertise with the company’s child-focused media outlets, says the company’s motives are not altruistic. 

“This is about smart business,” Iger continues and Brooks Barnes reports in the New York Times

Demonstrating a commitment to combating childhood obesity “allows Disney the opportunity to polish its brand as one families can trust -- something that drives sales of everything from Pixar DVDs to baby clothes to theme park vacations,” Barnes points out. “In addition, Disney has carefully studied the marketplace and executives say they believe there is increasing consumer demand for more nutritious food.”

“Many foods, such as prepackaged lunches, fruit drinks, candy and snack cakes, won't make the cut,” USA Today’s Nanci Hellmich reports. “The nutrition criteria were created by experts to reflect the government's dietary guidelines.”

Disney says it is “already working with major food companies to reformulate products so they can be advertised during children's programming,” Hellmich writes.

Disney is also introducing “Mickey Check” -- sort of a 21st century Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Products and menu items that meet the company's nutrition standards can display the symbol. It also will reduce the level of sodium in meals served at its parks by 25%, introduce kids' breakfasts that meet the nutritional guidelines and will expand fruits and vegetables to 350 of 400 food venues in its domestic theme parks by 2013.

"Parents can be confident that foods associated with Disney characters or advertised on Disney platforms meet our new, healthier nutrition guidelines," Iger said in a statement. “With this new initiative, Disney is doing what no major media company has ever done before in the U.S. -- and what I hope every company will do going forward,” says Obama in another statement. 

Perhaps in an effort to short-circuit Wall Street analysts who have criticized PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi for overemphasizing the development of healthier-for-you products -- at the expense of sweet cash cows such as Pepsi-Cola -- Iger also points out that health food for children has already become “a very, very solid business” for Disney. Since 2006, the company has sold about 2.8 billion servings of Disney-licensed servings of fruit and vegetables to children and their families, according to the company

Disney “launched a companywide initiative in 2006 to phase out promotion of junk food to kids and at its theme parks, but the program stopped short of any impact to its advertising practices,” Erica Orden and Bill Tomson point out in the Wall Street Journal, which seems to be uncharacteristically late to the story. “The company has since allowed its characters and brands to be used only on child-focused products that meet certain guidelines in terms of calories, fat, saturated fat and sugar.”

Reuters claimed an “exclusive” on today’s story, which was posted online by Lisa Richwine and Ronald Grover at 9:52 p.m. last night. But a much more comprehensive piece was filed by Barnes in time to make the first business page of the Times print edition today, and USA Today’s Hellmich also has a detailed piece, including press releases and reactions, this morning.

Who cares? Not readers, certainly, who differentiate less and less about the prime source of news as it scuds across cyberspace in follow-ups and aggregations. But reporters, and the editors who nurture them, have long memories. One wonders who told whom what in advance, or if Reuters simply broke an embargo, opening the floodgates.

The move will not be without its critics on both sides of the issue –- some saying the guidelines are caving-in to the “food police” and others claiming that they don’t go far enough.

“This limits the marketing of the worst junk foods, but it won’t mean you’re only going to see ads for apples, bananas and oranges, either,” Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells Barnes, on cue. As an example, she says the standards require cereal to contain less than 10 grams of sugar a serving but CSPI believes six would be better.

In a related story, the Bloomberg administration’s proposal to ban sugary beverages in New York City in cups larger than 16 ounces is getting a frosty reception, according to two polls released yesterday and reported on by the Wall Street Journal’s Michael Howard Saul. In a NY1-Marist poll, 53% of New York City residents say it’s is a bad idea; 42% like it; 6% are unsure. Nationally, the opposing forces, ahem, carry even more weight. According to Rasmussen Reports, 65% of adults say they oppose the initiative, 24% favor it and 11% are undecided.

Our Karlene Lukovitz follows up on reactions to the initiative, including news on a subway ad campaign launched yesterday by a beverage maker, Zevia, in support of the proposal. If you’re not familiar with Zevia, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that it uses zero-calorie stevia to sweeten its offerings.

“The rest of the country is wringing their hands about the obesity epidemic -- here in New York City we're acting," Thomas Farley, the commissioner of the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said yesterday at a City Council hearing, according to Saul.

One skeptical council member, David Greenfield of Brooklyn, wondered why the administration was focusing on soft drinks and ignoring other purported contributors to the public’s ill health such as burgers, fries, chicken nuggets and cigarettes. Hmmm, cigarettes and yummy foods in the same argument?  

With friends like Greenfield -- who tells Capital New York’s Azi Paybarah that “banning big sodas on public-health grounds doesn't make sense in light of the administration's opposition to his bill mandating helmets for cyclists” -- the food industry doesn’t need enemies.

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2 comments about "Disney Will Announce Major Childhood Obesity Initiative".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , June 5, 2012 at 10:51 a.m.
    Who fooling whoM ? Bloomberg may not be having an all in effect, but look who's talking ? Everyone. So has he accomplished something ? Beats more proclamations from the proclamation department. (Yes, all government offices have one.) The more "officials" get people talking, perhaps even thinking about their fat, it can't be bad. And Disney, may they profit from their changes as they move the needle. Otherwise, we're all gonna' pay.
  2. Monica Hahn from Hahn Solo, LLC , June 5, 2012 at 7:24 p.m.
    Agreed, Paula. Except with your last sentence, because we are all already paying! The US spends more than 1/2 of our GDP on healthcare, & obesity is the top driver of those costs. I personally think it's silly (& maybe even unconstitutional) to think we're going to fix the problem by banning big sodas, but I'm glad we're getting attention on this issue. KUDOS to Disney for putting their money where their mouth is and showing real leadership in promoting healthy families.