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First lady's anti-obesity campaign ignites change in food industry

First lady Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign, "Let's Move," has inspired some in the food industry to change. Wal-Mart, doing its part to incorporate the first lady's anti-obesity campaign into its stores, has started labeling foods. Others ignore her recommendations as government intrusion. 

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Larry Soler, president and chief executive of the Partnership for a Healthier America, said Mrs. Obama has "been the leader in making the case for the time is now in childhood obesity and everyone has a role to play in overcoming the problem." The nonpartisan, nonprofit partnership was created as part of "Let's Move" to work with the private sector and to hold companies accountable for changes they promised to make.

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Conservatives accused Mrs. Obama of going too far and dictating what people should — and shouldn't — eat after she played a major behind-the-scenes role in the passage in 2010 of a child nutrition law that required schools to make foods healthier. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican Party's vice presidential nominee in 2008, once brought cookies to a school and called the first lady's efforts a "nanny state run amok."

Other leaders in the effort, such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have felt the backlash, too. Last fall, Bloomberg helped enact the nation's first rule barring restaurants, cafeterias and concession stands from selling soda and other high-calorie drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces.

Despite the criticism, broad public support exists for some of the changes the first lady and the mayor are advocating, according to a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.

More than eight in 10 of those surveyed, 84 percent, support requiring more physical activity in schools, and 83 percent favor government providing people with nutritional guidelines and information about diet and exercise. Seventy percent favor having restaurants put calorie counts on menus, and 75 percent consider overweightness and obesity a serious problem in this country, according to the Nov. 21-Dec. 14 survey by telephone of 1,011 adults.

Food industry representatives say Mrs. Obama has influenced their own efforts.

Mary Sophos of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the country's largest food companies, including General Mills and Kellogg's, said an industry effort to label the fronts of food packages with nutritional content gained momentum after Mrs. Obama, a mother of two, attended one of their meetings in 2010 and encouraged them to do more.

"She's not trying to point fingers," Sophos said. "She's trying to get people to focus on solutions."

A move by the companies signaling willingness to work with Mrs. Obama appears to have paid off as the Obama administration eased off some of the fights it appeared ready to pick four years ago.

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