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Senator makes waves with anti-obesity campaign
By Jeremy Grant
Financial Times

March 14 2006 02:00  

Senator Tom Harkin, Washington's crusader on health and childhood obesity, keeps a popcorn machine in his Washington office that dispenses the "Jolly Time" brand from his home state of Iowa.

"I love popcorn. It's low-fat, you know," says the Democrat, with a politician's eye for the subject at hand: junk food marketing to children, school dinners, nutritional labelling in fast-food chains and America's obesity crisis.

Despite belonging to the minority party, Mr Harkin has been remarkably successful in pushing for legislation to address these issues. He used the appropriations process to squeeze through funding for a landmark Institute of Medicine study that established the first clear link between food marketing and the type of food requested by children.

He also secured additional funding for the free provision of fruit and vegetables in schools in 14 states.

Although a third of the US population is considered clinically obese, some of the food companies in Mr Harkin's sights can claim successes in the battle with bulging US waistlines.

At the Winter Olympics in Turin, the McDonald's hamburger chain began the global roll-out of a project to put the calorie, fat and sodium content of its fries and burgers on its wrappers. And Kraft, maker of Oreos and Lunchables cheese snacks, pledged to stop pushing junk food to children aged under 12 and instead promote its healthier products.

Unlike in Europe, where Brussels is threatening regulation if companies do not take significant steps to address obesity, the US administration has been happy to let business regulate itself.

While Mr Harkin lauds the efforts of McDonald's, Kraft and others, he is clear on whether self-regulation is working. "Absolutely not. I'm not hell-bent to get government regulation but I have seen no evidence that the industry is willing to police itself with teeth. Or the advertising industry. I don't mean to put the whole burden on the food industry." His view stems from disappointment that there has been, as he sees it, little follow-up by competitors of McDonald's and Kraft.

Only a few months after Kraft said it would restrict marketing to children, Kellogg's launched a campaign for Apple Jacks, a sugary apple and cinnamon-flavoured breakfast cereal. The advert was criticised for appearing to play down the health benefits of apples.

"I had the CEO of Kraft in here last fall and I have publicly commended them. I said to him: 'My big fear is that you'll do that, but your big competitors won't.' By God, two months later Kellogg's came out with this damned ad on Apple Jacks."

Mr Harkin is also critical of the Children's Advertising Review Unit (Caru), the advertising industry's self-regulatory body.

Caru has prompted big national advertisers to modify or discontinue advertisements voluntarily, on occasion going beyond what is required under existing law.

But Mr Harkin says this is often after the campaigns have been running for some time.

"There's no pre-clearance [of advertisements] that they are allowed to do."

It was not until a month ago that Caru recommended that Kellogg's withdraw its advertisements because they misrepresented the health benefits of apples. By then, the campaign had already been discontinued.

Mr Harkin's attempts to make industry accountable for actions that contribute to America's obesity problem have been making waves.

In the midst of a Senate committee debate last week on the influence of electronic media on violence among children, he tried to propose "a small amendment" to have a pilot project assess the impact of electronic media on children's diets.

He was forced to pull the amendment, he says, under pressure from the committee's Republican chairman. "He told me on the floor the food industry's very upset about it, so it will generate a lot of debate," he says.

Mr Harkin has nonetheless managed to enlist the support of two key Republicans - Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski - for proposed legislation in the spring that would give the US agriculture secretary power to regulate what is sold on school campuses, including soft drinks vending machines, rather than just in the lunch room.

Mr Harkin now plans to introduce legislation that would force fast food chains to put nutritional information on menu boards - so that consumers are informed before they pick up a hamburger and read about its fat content on a wrapper.

Last year, he scored a minor victory on the same issue by persuading the Senate cafeteria to display nutritional information next to its food items.

"We know what obesity costs - the number of people with diabetes has nearly doubled in the past decade. People are beginning to say, 'My God, what's happening?'," says Mr Harkin. "I think we've come to the point when all of the forces are arrayed to make some real big changes. Bit by bit we're going to keep closing in."

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