By Jason Stemm (@NYCubsFan
As the senate prepares to debate a new farm bill and food advocates are clamoring for a larger piece of the pie to go to specialty crops (think sweet corn and blueberries) rather than commodity crops (think wheat and corn for processing), Walt Disney Co. made an announcement that will cause ripple effects throughout the food industry and have a lasting impact on the way food brands market to children. Disney’s unveiling of new nutrition guidelines for foods advertised across all of their media channels was applauded by Michelle Obama and advocacy groups. While some felt they didn’t go far enough, most realized the financial risk the company was taking by refusing current advertisers unless they step up their game. It clearly wasn’t driven by the bottom line, since food and beverage advertising to kids is estimated at $1.6 billion dollars a year.
This announcement follows the Disney Magic of Healthy Living initiative launched in 2010 and Disney’s initial steps in 2006 toward supporting a healthier generation of Americans. It included such things as licensing character images to fruits and vegetables. This was right around the time that researchers were seeing for the first time in 200 years an end to the steady rise in life expectancy. Disney has been a leader in this area, and with earlier announcements, other children’s media giants such as Nickelodeon have followed course.
The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative has been working with the industry to voluntarily improve food and beverage advertising to children and already seeing improvements. This may have helped encourage Disney to make this move as everyone is trying to reign in the industry before the government takes action as they have with other categories such as tobacco and alcohol. In New York City, legislation reducing salt and now sugary drinks has been highly contentious. While well intended, defining and implementing such rules is extremely complicated. The mayor’s proposal targets “sugary drinks,” but would not include fruit juices, milk-based drinks or alcoholic beverages. It also just covers restaurants, theaters, stadiums and delis, but not supermarkets that are the state’s jurisdiction.
Disney is also making changes internally. They serve 12 million children’s meals annually, and are planning to reduce the amount of sodium by 25 percent. Additionally, they will be expanding fruit and vegetable offerings in 350 food venues in its U.S. parks by next year. To help children and parents identify healthier options, the Mickey Check has been introduced for products and menu items that meet the criteria.
The criteria were developed in consultation with two child health and wellness experts and align closely with the most recent dietary guidelines and the FTC’s proposed guidelines for food marketing to children. For instance, a complete meal much have less than 600 calories, 740 mg of sodium, and less than 1.1 g of saturated fat and 2.5 grams of sugar per 100 calories. This means current advertiser, Kraft Lunchables, will need to reformulate their product or find another place to advertise. That’s right, this $54 billion, multi-national companies money is no longer good with Mickey unless their food meets these guidelines.
There are not too many media companies that can throw their weight around like Disney. What they have done is put everyone on notice that the winds are changing. We keep hoping with each new initiative announced that this may be what finally starts bending the curve of obesity in this country. While I wouldn’t expect success overnight (this advertising move will not be complete until 2015) perhaps my daughter’s generation will be able to expect a longer and healthier life than us Gen X-ers. What all health and wellness advocates should do is applaud Disney for this bold decision and use it to keep advancing education and awareness about the relationship between food and health.