US shields fast-food firms from obesity cases
Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
Friday March 12, 2004
America's fast-food industry savoured a victory over consumer activists yesterday after Congress approved a "cheeseburger bill" to shield restaurant franchises and food firms from blame for making customers "dangerously fat".
By 276 to 139 votes Congress on Wednesday night moved to ban lawsuits against the industry that enjoys a grip on America's eating habits and has grown into the country's second largest employer.
The vote, championed by Republicans, has yet to pass the US Senate, but it was hailed by Republican legislators as a boost for "personal responsibility", and received the White House's endorsement.
A White House statement said: "Food manufacturers and sellers should not be held liable for injury because of a person's consumption of legal, unadulterated food, and weight gain or obesity."
However, consumer rights groups say more is at stake with the cheeseburger bill than a wake-up call for Americans to take control of poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles. Jennifer Keller, a nutritionist on the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine, said: "The unfortunate thing is that without the threat of litigation and lawsuits, the food industry is not going to take any steps to provide healthy options."
The threat of such lawsuits was widely seen as the impetus for the bill, along with the considerations of an election year. Last week, Republican legislators attempted to ban lawsuits against gun shops and weapons manufacturers.
But there were signs this week of a growing backlash against fast-food franchises as Americans take stock of their girth. Two in three American adults and nine million US children are obese.
Earlier this week, the Centres for Disease Control released a study predicting obesity soon overtaking smoking as a leading cause of preventable disease. About 400,000 Americans died through bad diet and lack of exercise in 2000, a rise of 33% over a decade, the study said.
Meanwhile, McDonald's announced it was phasing out super-sized soft drinks and french fries, which nutritionists have blamed for America's ballooning waistlines.
Both consumer and health groups argue that a ban on lawsuits would relieve the pressure on the fast-food industry to meet concerns about health and obesity. They say class-action lawsuits - the focus of the cheeseburger bill - played a crucial role in making the tobacco industry more accountable. Lawsuits highlighted for Americans the link between smoking and cancer and the way tobacco firms try to make cigarettes yet more addictive. "We are only just now discovering that the food industry does work to manipulate people's food choices," Ms Keller said.