Walt Disney Co. today said it would limit licensing for most of its characters to food products low in fat and sugar -- a significant move as lawmakers increasingly blame marketers for the childhood-obesity epidemic.
Disney said its guidelines take effect immediately for licensing deals but will be phased in as existing contracts expire and will apply internationally. That could take awhile: Most Disney licensing deals end by 2008, but a Kellogg Co. deal for cereal has another seven years to run. In addition, Disney Consumer Products has licensing deals with Kellogg's Keebler division, Coca-Cola's Minute Maid and McDonald's for Happy Meals.
Trans fat ban
As part of its program, Disney said it will reformulate children's meals at Disney parks to make them more healthful, and as a result trans fats will be banned at McDonald's restaurants within its parks.
"Disney will be providing healthier options for families that seek them, whether at our parks or through our broad array of licensed foods," Disney President-CEO Robert Iger said in a statement. "The Disney brand and characters are in a unique position to market food that kids will want and parents will feel good about giving them."
Disney's guidelines include: limiting portions and calories in kids' packages; limiting fat to 30% of calories for main and side dishes and 35% for snacks; limiting saturated fats to 10% of calories for main dishes, side dishes and snacks; and barring added sugar from exceeding 10% of calories for main dishes and side dishes and 25% for snacks.
Disney will still license birthday cakes and seasonal candy but will lessen that part of its licensing deals.
'Part of the solution'
The company said its action is a result of consumer demand for more-healthful products, not pressure from legislators and the Federal Communications Commission members, who have faulted media companies and marketers for contributing to kids' obesity.
"We have been looking at this for quite some time," said Zenia Mucha, exec VP at Disney. "We recognize that parents have been looking for choices in children's nutrition. We want to be part of the solution to that goal."
Yet Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, today commended Disney saying he hoped "it will spark a positive shift in the way the entire food and entertainment industry operates."
And Federal Trade Commission Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras called Disney's action "precisely the kind of industry response we hoped to see. Disney and a few other leaders are gradually changing the nutritional landscape of foods marketed to children."
Consumer groups had more mixed response. Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, praised Disney but said the company should go further. "Few companies are as visible among families with children as Disney, so it is welcome news," she said, adding that the company should also reexamine what type of food ads it runs aimed at kids on ABC.
Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a Ralph Nader group critical of overactive marketing, said the guidelines are more notable for what they omit than what they include. "If Disney really cared about kids, it would stop all marketing of junk food to children, including on ABC," he said.