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Disney Cleans Plate of Junk Food

Times Staff Writer

The Incredibles Pop-Tarts are out, and Nemo water and Disney Garden apples are in.

Walt Disney Co. said Monday that it would start lending its characters’ names mainly to healthful foods, cheering activists who have faulted the entertainment industry for contributing to childhood obesity.

Disney said it would essentially follow federal guidelines for children’s diets. In its parks, it will replace French fries and soda in kids’ meals with vegetables and juice.

In its licensing deals, which reach more consumers, by 2009 Disney will limit portion sizes and in most cases refuse to tie its brand to foods that get more than 30% of their calories from fat, more than 10% from saturated fat or more than 10% from added sugar. Exceptions will be reduced to 15% of Disney-related foods by 2010.

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“Sugary things like Lucky Charms and Sugar Frosted Flakes wouldn’t make it,” said James O. Hill, a child nutrition expert who worked with Disney on the new policy for five months. “Cheerios and Rice Krispies would.”

The announcement follows scientific panels’ reports that blasted the use of cartoon characters to sell food with low nutritional value to children.

“This is wonderful,” said Ellen Wartella, the provost of UC Riverside and a contributor to one of those reports, which the National Academy of Sciences issued in December.

“The concern about obesity and childhood is a national concern, and it’s putting all our children at risk. Disney should be lauded.”

The plan, more than a year and a half in the making, was announced just months after Disney and McDonald’s Corp. failed to renew a 10-year, $1-billion promotional pact.

Executives on both sides of those talks said nutrition was not the driving factor behind the split. Disney insiders said the fast-food partnership would be difficult to justify now that the company was trying to brand fruit, pasta and other items less likely to disturb health-conscious parents.

The science panels also asked food manufacturers and broadcasters to do more to staunch the flow of sugared products. Kraft Foods, the largest vendor, has stopped advertising some of its wares during children’s television shows.

But commercial broadcasters, including Disney’s ABC network and the Toon Disney channel, haven’t stopped carrying commercials for junk food. Disney has been incorporating more story lines on a healthy diet and exercise in its shows, Chief Financial Officer Thomas O. Staggs said.

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Hill and others would have liked Disney to go further but said Monday’s moves would still put pressure on competing media firms targeting children.

“As long as this is a first step and not the last step, this is really an important change,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Staggs said the nutrition program, to be phased in as current contracts end, could cost Disney revenue in the short term because fewer products would qualify for licensing deals.

Parents “try to make intelligent choices,” Staggs said. “The right thing to do for our company, our brand and our characters is to provide them those choices.”

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joseph.menn@latimes.com


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