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Food companies play into the hands of trial lawyers.


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With trial lawyers snuffling, “food police” threatening, and the Health and Human Services Secretary preaching, it’s no wonder that Kraft Foods felt the pressure and unveiled its global healthy foods campaign on July 1.

Kraft, the second-largest food company in the world with instant brand recognition for its Kraft cheeses, Nabisco cookies and crackers, Oscar Meyer meats, Post cereals, and Philadelphia cream cheese, announced a global plan to do its part in combating obesity. Their strategy is a combination of reducing portion sizes, putting even more information on labels, restricting its marketing, and educating consumers about healthy living. Oh, and Kraft is going to set up an advisory panel to provide the firm with expert advice on such issues as nutrition, food, and fat. (Wouldn’t you think a company that’s been in the food business for over 200 years would already know a little about that?)

The company got some positive media coverage for being the first of the big food firms to announce an anti-obesity plan. Expect others to follow suit.

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Trial lawyers and their supporters have been salivating over the prospect of lawsuits against and juicy settlements from food companies — manufacturers and restaurants — for causing the “obesity epidemic.” You too can catch obesity, these advocates say, if you eat takeout food, gobble munchies, consume double portions, and watch TV ads showing tantalizing tidbits. Last month lawyers and their activist colleagues convened a strategy session in Boston to map out how to use the anti-tobacco lawsuit model against food companies and restaurants. Some militants also want to tax fatty foods and maybe raise the prices of all foods or take some of our food away. After all, one participant — Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor — was quoted by the Washington Times (June 22) as saying, “There is an overabundance of food in this country … most people eat more than they should because of it.” (Don’t put her in charge of the neighborhood soup kitchen.)

And here we see the downside of Kraft’s “good corporate citizen” action. In trying to appease the activists, they have given credibility and greater clout to those people who want to control what we eat by lawsuits and taxes and regulations. Just a few years ago, the idea of a “Twinkie tax” on fatty food got a laugh. Yale professor Kelly Brownell has been pushing that idea for at least nine years. In a New York Times op-ed (December 16, 1994), Brownell wrote: “Fatty foods would be judged on their nutritive value per calorie or gram of fat; the least healthy would be given the highest tax rate.” It should still be laughed at instead of parroted or paraphrased by our regulators.

The focus on food producers and fast food as primary culprits overlooks the findings of many recent studies that the causes of the obesity problem are many and complex. Most physicians, dietitians, nutritionists, and other scientists agree that obesity arises from many factors: genetic, socio-economic, medical, dietary, lifestyle-related, psychological, and others.

Some general trends in society also help explain the trend toward more overweight people, such as less active lifestyles, physical inactivity, with more time spent on computers and watching TV, less physically demanding work, greater affordability of automobiles for more people, longer commutes. Other lifestyle trends — such as both parents working — create time pressures that have dramatically increased the incidence of food prepared outside the home. The greater affordability of food than was the case even 20 years ago may also be a factor.

The trial lawyers and their promoters, by portraying consumers as victims, are in reality acting against consumers’ interests. Telling consumers that food is the problem and they are the victims of food producers and fast-food restaurants is counterproductive in getting people to take positive steps — to eat more balanced diets and exercise more.

In light of the unprecedented financial assault on tobacco (and, in turn, on tobacco consumers), Kraft’s preemptory actions may seem understandable. But by conceding the moral ground to the fanatical food police so early, Kraft is in fact laying the groundwork for a successful and vicious assault by the trial lawyers and the meddling nanny-state activists.

With Kraft playing into the hands of the trial lawyers and anti-food activists, other food companies are likely to follow. Their actions will almost certainly deflect attention from the complexity of the obesity problem, further encourage frivolous lawsuits, misguided tax proposals, and campaigns for government mandates that narrow consumers’ choices and lighten their pocketbooks.

Frances B. Smith is executive director of Consumer Alert, a national consumer group based in Washington, D.C.



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