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Food Giants Scramble to Avoid Obesity Lawsuits

From: THE
August 30, 2004, Issue #368
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
>From a Public Interest Perspective

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MARK WEINRAUB, REUTERS: The U.S. food industry has successfully lobbied for
laws preventing consumers from blaming companies for obesity problems, but
lawyers are continuing to look for loopholes to make the companies pay.

In the past year, lawmakers have passed laws protecting restaurants and food
producers from obesity lawsuits, even as researchers have published many
more studies about the costs and dangers of being overweight.

"There was certainly a lot of momentum that was going (to the obesity issue)
this year," said Amy Winterfeld, a senior policy specialist who tracks
obesity laws for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "I think the
issue is one of concern both to public health advocates and people in the
food industry and so it's likely to be hotly debated."

So far, 11 states have enacted laws preventing consumers from filing obesity
lawsuits against companies in their states. Another ten state legislatures
are considering so-called "cheeseburger bills," according to the National
Conference of State Legislatures.

Additionally, the U.S. House of Representatives has approved legislation
blocking lawsuits blaming the food industry for making people fat. A similar
bill is still pending in the Senate.

But that does not mean the food industry has won. Obesity legislation
protecting restaurant and food producers was either voted down or vetoed by
governors in four other states and lawyers have become more creative in
trying to find ways to punish the companies.

The most celebrated obesity case, in which several teenagers filed a lawsuit
in 2003 claiming that McDonald's Corp.'s hamburgers made them fat, was twice
thrown out of federal court.

But lawsuits such as these, which the food industry has dismissed as
frivolous, have caught the industry's attention, said John Banzhaf,
professor of public interest law at George Washington University.

"These suits are having an important effect," Banzhaf said. "These companies
are changing and doing things they should be doing."

Lawyers also are starting to employ tactics to circumvent the recently
enacted obesity laws. Some possible backdoor ways at the issue include
examining the ways companies label food or advertise, Banzhaf said.

The companies have steadily been changing their behavior since lawyers and
the media started turning up the heat on obesity issues.

McDonald's has been trying to align its brand with an active lifestyle,
highlighted by a new global advertising campaign. The Oak Brook,
Illinois-based company also has announced plans to eliminate supersize
french fries and soft drinks by the end of 2004.

PepsiCo Inc.'s Frito-Lay snack unit has removed trans-fats, which have been
found to raise cholesterol levels, from its foods. The $57 million process
involved replacing soybean oil with corn oil in its products, which include
Lays potato chips, Doritos and Rold Gold pretzels.

And the companies will keep looking for ways to produce healthier products,
not only because of possible lawsuits, but because it is good for business.

Despite some signs that the low-carb trend has peaked, health and obesity
issues are not going away. Consumers are constantly searching for ways to
shed pounds and improve their health.

"The companies that get out in front of it are going to be the ones that win
in the end," said PepsiCo Chief Innovation Officer Brock Leach. ( August 24,
2004 )