CHICAGO – Kraft Foods Inc. (KFT), the biggest maker of processed foods, Tuesday said it would cap portion sizes, eliminate marketing in schools and reformulate some products as the food industry faces increasing legal blame for obesity and unhealthy eating trends.
The maker of Oreo cookies (search) and Velveeta cheese spreads (search) said this year it will develop a range of standards to improve the overall nutritional content of its products and the way it sells them. It will begin making changes to the way it manufactures and markets foods beginning next year.
The cost of the measures, which are sweeping, could not be estimated, according to a spokesman for the company, based in the Chicago suburb of Northfield, Illinois.
Critics are quick to point out that Kraft may be on the defensive at a time of heightened criticism over the role big food companies play in contributing to growing health problems in the United States. No. 1 fast-food chain McDonald's Corp. (MCD) has already been the target of a highly publicized lawsuit linking its burgers to obesity in children.
"This is sort of a preemptive move to stave off the lawyers and the critics," said Henry Anhalt, an endocrinologist and director of the "Kids Weight Down" program at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn.
"What I think is going on is that the soothsayers are saying that coming down the pike are going to be large lawsuits, class action suits looking at cardiovascular disease, premature death, diabetes, and they're going to turn to the food industry and lay it on their feet," he said.
Still, he applauded Kraft for making changes that he believes will make a difference. Kraft could set standards that other major food companies could follow.
Obesity among adults in the United States has doubled since 1980, and tripled among adolescents, according to the U.S. surgeon general.
Kraft acknowledged that the moves may in part help indemnify the company against potential lawsuits.
"We're making these commitments first and foremost because we think it is the right thing to do for the people who use our products and for our business, but if it also discourages a plaintiff's attorney or unfair legislation, that's fine with us." said Michael Mudd, a Kraft spokesman.
Kraft said its efforts would be global, focusing on product nutrition, marketing practices, information for consumers and public advocacy. It is forming an advisory council to help develop standards for the company's approach to health issues.
Marketing fatty and sugar-laden foods to children has been a hot-button in the news. Last week, New York City's school system decided to remove candy, soda and sweet snacks from school vending machines.
Last month, the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (search) said that agency plans to push for expanded nutritional labeling on food products.
Kraft said the changes it will make will include advertising and marketing to children to encourage appropriate eating behaviors and active lifestyles.
The company, which used to promote its products on Channel One, a news channel played in secondary schools, will now cease all in-school marketing.
Earlier this year, a lawsuit was filed in California seeking to ban Oreo cookies, Kraft's best-selling cookie brand. The suit, which drew criticism in legal circles for potentially abusing the U.S. court system, was withdrawn less than two weeks later. The attorney said news coverage of the lawsuit made people aware of the alleged health risks from eating one of America's favorite snacks.