WASHINGTON, D.C.—Recognizing the potential for obesity to become a real hot button issues in the public policy and public relations arena, the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition has retained Edelman Public Relations Worldwide and Dittus Communications to help position industry as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

The ACFN was formed earlier this year by a coalition of food industry groups including the American Frozen Food Institute, the Association of National Advertisers, the Food Marketing Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the International Dairy Foods Association, Kraft Foods, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, the National Restaurant Association, the National Soft Drink Association, the Snack Food Association and the Sugar Association.

The group says it is dedicated is “to working cooperatively with the Bush administration, members of Congress and others to develop innovative, sustainable and sensible solutions that restore the needed balance between physical activity, nutritious diets, and healthy lifestyle choices.” It has also opposed an effort to bar soda from California schools.

But with two young women launching a new lawsuit against McDonald’s last week—claiming the restaurant chain is responsible for their weight problems—the entire industry is determined to get out ahead of the obesity issue. Plaintiffs attorneys have suggested that unhealthy foods could be to the first decade of the 21st century what tobacco was to the last decade of the 20th, with the added complication that unhealthy foods have been marketed directly to kids.

McDonald’s says the issue is one of personal responsibility and points out that fast food—unlike tobacco—is non-addictive and is not harmful to those who choose not to partake. According to McDonald’s lawyers, “Every responsible person understands what is in products such as hamburgers and fries, as well as the consequences to one’s waistline, and potentially to one’s health, of excessively eating those foods over a prolonged period of time.”

Nevertheless, the company recently announced it was changing the fat in which its fries are cooked, and has launched a campaign advising people not to overindulge in its products.
The ACFN is looking to play a more public role in the discussion about obesity, after several months of studying the issue, after a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association claimed more than 30 percent of Americans are obese. But a GMA survey earlier this year found 89 percent of Americans believed obesity was an issue of personal responsibility, compared to just 7 percent who blamed either food manufacturers or restaurants.

“It is clear that Americans understand they are responsible for achieving good health,” according to GMA director of scientific and nutrition policy Lisa Katic, R.D. “Obesity is a complex issue that will require a new dedication to proper nutrition education and daily physical activity. Any solution that fixates on removing choice through narrow restrictions on products will not succeed in changing individuals’ lifestyles.”

Dittus will handle a grassroots lobbying campaign, focused on opinion leaders, and regulators at the state and federal levels. It will work closely with Edelman, which is providing strategic counsel and will target media and healthcare professionals. The two firms were hired after a 10-week search that included at least six firms.

Edelman’s newly appointed food and nutrition practice director Bill Layden did not comment on the account, but acknowledges that obesity is “among the most vexing issues the food and beverage industries… have ever faced. Its very complexity defies simple solutions. Ultimately food and beverage companies must be part of the solution. Consumers would expect no less.”

The public relations campaign will face some skepticism. In June, a pair of medical researchers from Harvard and Yale called on the food industry to suspend all advertising and marketing aimed at children, remove sugar-sweetened soft drinks and snack foods from vending machines in schools, end sponsorship of scholastic activities, and refrain from political contributions that might influence national nutrition policy.