Molpus refuses to let Capitol Hill fillet food industry in obesity debate

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If the advertising associations are caught in the whirlwind of child-obesity debates in Washington, Manly Molpus, 63, president-CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, is in the storm's eye.

Mr. Molpus is the top Washington representative of the nation's food makers targeted by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and others for targeting kids with ads for unhealthful foods. In recent months, he's had to step into an advertising-policy role well beyond GMA's normal one addressing issues ranging from food taxes to food-industry technology, Food and Drug Administration labeling, international trade, environmental and solid waste.

A year ago Mr. Molpus, a former Kroger executive who first came to Washington as president-CEO of the American Meat Institute, muscled his way into the debate with a strongly worded letter to the Children's Advertising Review Unit demanding it to do far more to publicize the industry's self review of its food advertising.

But as Capitol Hill and consumer groups contend that CARU's review of food ads aimed at kids still isn't enough, Mr. Molpus is out defending its process. He is now pleased with CARU's heightened effort to publicize its review of industry advertising and he said that the rest of the media and advertising industry need to add their voice to the chorus supporting its work.

"No industry would want a constant drumbeat about some industry practice. I do think that the view shared by Sen. Harkin and a few others isn't roundly shared, but it's not an issue that the industry can afford to ignore ... to presume to think that there are only one or two members of Congress or a few advocacy groups," Mr. Molpus said. "We need to take the issue seriously."

DIET, NOT FOOD

Nearly 6 feet tall, Mr. Molpus has a strong southern accent, a reflection of his childhood in Belzoni, Miss. His arrival in Washington coincided with that of some other influential residents, who he knew from college day including GOP Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, and new Gov. Haley Barbour, the former head of the Republican National Committee.

Given the circles he runs in, Mr. Molpus is well aware that obesity and childhood obesity are pressing health issues. But he believes the problem is diet, not the foods. "We are not going to get into a good-foods/bad-foods issue. Our view is there are no bad foods. Only bad diets and all foods consumed in moderation and with balance and exercise can fit in a good and healthy diet."

His biggest concern is that the childhood-obesity debate and the charge that food advertising is the culprit will spill out of the hallways of Washington and into the mainstream.

"I'm more worried about ... [those] who read some charge that isn't based on fact and want to take that and build it into an issue somewhere in some other environment," Mr. Molpus said.

Already the Institute of Medicine has called for government officials to organize a meeting to explore improving self regulation by the industry. The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services have announced plans for an industry workshop this summer on obesity and marketing to kids. There the GMA could well unveil additional self-regulatory steps. He acknowledges companies are reviewing their practices and predicts, "You will see more company to company examination and scrutiny of their practices."

Richard Martin, GMA's VP-communication, said the story of how an ad becomes an ad needs to be better told. "There are internal company standards. Then there are network standards. Then there is CARU. We talk a lot about CARU, but what you are going to see more of is talking about the whole process, by us, by the ad associations and hopefully by the networks."

GMA's relations with ad groups have been strengthened by the obesity fight. "One thing that certainly happened in the last year is we have gotten to know them better. We always kind of knew them because we had a lot in common, but in the last year we have really coalesced around this issue."

Just Asking

Growing up was there any food you hated to eat or your mother had to force you to eat and do you eat it now? As a Southerner, I grew up with vegetables on the table at every meal, and I was less than enthused when eggplant or squash made an appearance. Over the years, I've grown to appreciate them both. In fact, eggplant parmesan is one of my favorite dishes.

What's your normal breakfast? This is going to sound staged, but it's true. I generally have a bowl of cereal with 2% milk, a glass of juice and a slice of toast. When I'm feeling indulgent, I'll have pancakes.

OK, let's get real. Which do you prefer and in what order: Twinkies, Dingdongs, Oreos, M&Ms, Trix, Hostess cupcakes, Little Debbies, Snowballs, carrots? That's like asking me to choose my favorite grandchild. There's no way I can pick just one. I guess I'd put the carrots last and everything else would tie for first... all in moderation, of course.

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