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First lady to food companies: Improve quality

WASHINGTON - Michelle Obama is urging the nation's largest food companies to speed up efforts to make healthier foods and reduce marketing of unhealthy foods to children.

The first lady asked the companies, gathered at a meeting of the Grocery Manufacturers Association Tuesday, to "step it up" and put less fat, salt and sugar in foods.

"We need you not to just tweak around the edges but entirely rethink the products you are offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children," she said.

Obama has talked to schools and nutrition groups across the country in her effort to reduce childhood obesity. This is the first time she has confronted the food companies that make the snacks and junk food that stuff grocery aisles and school vending machines.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association - which counts Kraft Foods Inc., Coca Cola Co. and General Mills Inc. among its members - invited her to speak at its science forum this week, and attendees gave her a standing ovation.

While introducing her, Rick Wolford, chairman and chief executive of Del Monte Foods Co. and chairman of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said it is "a watershed moment in the fight against obesity.

"We are willing to do more, and we are willing to go the extra mile," he said.

Welcoming the first lady and embracing her campaign for healthier kids, launched last month, could have advantages. The industry is positioned to take some blows in the coming year, including a child nutrition bill about to move through Congress that could eliminate junk food in schools, digging into some companies' profits.

Obama urged companies not just to find creative ways to market products as healthy but to increase nutrients and reduce bad ingredients.

"While decreasing fat is certainly a good thing, replacing it with sugar and salt isn't," she said. "This needs to be a serious industrywide commitment to providing the healthier foods parents are looking for at prices they can afford."

Obama's campaign is largely focused on school lunches and vending machines, along with making healthy food more available and encouraging children to exercise more.

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