ACFN hires Edelman, Dittus for anti-obesity campaign

WASHINGTON: The US food industry wants to become more vocal in the growing national debate over obesity, and is taking on two PR agencies to help make its case.

WASHINGTON: The US food industry wants to become more vocal in the growing national debate over obesity, and is taking on two PR agencies to help make its case.

The American Council for Fitness and Nutrition (ACFN), a Washington-based group formed earlier this year by a variety of food industry associations, has hired Edelman for strategic communications counsel, and Dittus Communications, also based in Washington, for grassroots outreach to lawmakers and regulators around the country.

The hires come after a two-and-a-half month search that involved six firms pitching for the major piece of the business.

Edelman's initial efforts will target the media, opinion leaders, and healthcare professionals. Dittus will reach out to politicians at all levels of the government.

The coalition also wants to contact companies in non-food industries, such as broadcasters, exercise equipment makers, and computer manufacturers, who also have stakes in the obesity debate, said Gene Grabowski, VP of communications and marketing for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, who is serving as the coordinator of the coalition.

Food companies have been encouraging Americans to become fit for years, but not publicizing such efforts, Grabowski explained.

"We've been subtly sharing those messages. Now we think it's time to be a little more outspoken in our efforts," he said. "We believe that the industry has a good story to tell in the obesity debate."

But several consumer groups have been vocal in blaming American food manufacturers, and chains like McDonald's, for fostering America's growing obesity problem.

The national media gave a fair amount of coverage to a recent report of the Journal of the American Medical Association in which it found that 30.5% of Americans are obese.

A BusinessWeek story headlined "Why We're So Fat" painted the issue in simple terms, noting the US food industry produces 3,800 calories per day for every American, about 30% more than men need, and twice as much as the average woman needs.

"There are no simple reasons for obesity, and there will be no simple solutions," Grabowski said. "We want to open up a dialogue with policy-makers and leaders across the country to make sure they are aware that we are working very aggressively to promote solutions to the obesity problem. We think that the solution to this problem has to have as wide a base as possible."

A budget is still being developed for the ACFN's new PR initiatives.

Exactly how many Edelman staffers will work on the program has not been finalized, but efforts will be handled by the agency's Washington office, with support from its Chicago-based food and nutrition practice.

Bill Layden recently left Porter Novelli's Washington office to become the EVP and director of Edelman's food practice. He's been involved in the obesity issue for several years, but his move to Edelman was not a deciding factor in the ACFN's decision, Grabowski said.

Layden wouldn't comment on Edelman's plans for the ACFN, referring all questions to Grabowski.

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