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Kraft Foods hopes skinnier Oreos can dodge lawsuits

| Wednesday, July 2, 2003

CHICAGO -- Kraft Foods, the maker of such goodies as Oreos, Mallomars and Chips Ahoy cookies, says it will change some of its recipes and reduce portion sizes to put healthier snacks in kids' lunch boxes and fight obesity.

The nation's largest food company said Tuesday it is forming an expert advisory council that will review Kraft's products and recommend changes in its single-portion packages of cookies, crackers and other snacks.

Kraft also will eliminate promotions in schools, including posters and free samples. Its snacks will still be stocked in school vending machines, though the panel could decide some products are inappropriate.

Some observers see the effort as a first defense against lawsuits in an age when personal injury lawyers have turned their attention from cigarettes to Big Macs and even Kraft's own Oreo cookies. A California attorney sued to ban Oreos because of their artery-clogging trans fat, but later withdrew the lawsuit, satisfied with the publicity.

"We're making these commitments first and foremost because we think it's the right thing to do," said Michael Mudd, spokesman for the company, based in Northfield. "If it also discourages a plaintiff's attorney or unfair legislation, that's just fine with us."

The company said it hopes to develop its standards by the end of the year and put them into effect over two to three years.

The 10-person panel will be assembled from international experts on behavior, nutrition, health and communications.

"What people eat is ultimately a matter of personal choice, but we can help make it an educated choice," said Roger Deromedi, co-chief executive at Kraft. "And helping them get more active is every bit as important as helping them eat better."

Kraft, whose other products include Oscar Mayer meats, Post cereals, Ritz crackers, and Maxwell House coffee, may also be able to tap into the growing market for healthier foods with reduced fat, salt or sugar. Those products account for $5 billion in sales a year, said Grocery Manufacturers of America spokesman Gene Grabowski.

Dr. Henry Anhalt, a pediatric endocrinologist at New York's Maimonides Medical Center, said Kraft may be covering itself in court, but the result could be healthier children.

Anhalt said children typically treat a 20-ounce soda as one serving, while it actually contains 21/2 servings.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America, an industry group representing companies including Kraft, said more companies will follow.

"This is months and years in the making. This predates lawsuits," spokesman Gene Grabowski said.

"Better-for-you" foods with reduced fat, salt or sugar account for $5 billion a year of the grocery business' $500 billion in annual sales and at 12 percent annual growth are among the fastest growing segments of the grocery industry, Grabowski said.

Kraft also announced it will work on advocacy and education programs to encourage schools and communities to eat better and work on fitness.

In trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Kraft shares fell 25 cents to $32.30.

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