Gene Grabowski and John Banzhaf debate fast food lawsuits.
CNN LIVE SUNDAY 16:00 June 22, 2003 Sunday

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Now to America's obesity problem. Who is to blame? Some top legal eagles are meeting this weekend to talk about whether the food industry is addicting people, children in particular, to fatty foods. To talk about what comes next, I'm joined by John Banzhaf, a public interest lawyer who battled a big tobacco case in court. Also joining us is Gene Grabowski of the Grocery Manufacturers of America. Good to see both of you, gentleman.

Well, John, let me begin with you. Why should any consumer pursue the food industry for blaming them for consuming foods that may eventually be bad for them?

JOHN BANZHAF, PUBLIC INTEREST LAWYER: Well, Fredricka, what we're doing is planning to use the same kind of very broad style legal attacks which we used so successfully against the problem of smoking, now against the problem of obesity. There is seven such suits so far. Three we've won; one is going to court in several days. In that one, the judge said that if McDonald's, which is the defendant in that case, misled people regarding the amount of fat, for example, in their chicken McNuggets, then they can be liable, a liability. We're not saying that the fast food industry or the food industry is solely liable or should be responsible for all of it, but as we maintained very successfully in the tobacco cases, often there is shared responsibility, and the industry should bear their fair share of $120 billion a year.

WHITFIELD: Well, John, let me ask you why you see there's similarity with the tobacco fight, when particularly in terms of food there are so many more choices in which people can make. They don't have to reach for the fattier foods, which these days -- isn't everyone a little more knowledgeable about what is considered fatty foods, what is considered better for you, leaner, et cetera?

BANZHAF: Well, therein lies the problem. When you stand in line at McDonald's or Burger King or Wendy's, you don't know how much fat or how much calories are in each of those meals. Many people apparently believe that if they get the chicken McNuggets or the fish, it is lower in fat, so one of the charges is that McDonald's doesn't reveal in a clear and conspicuous matter -- not buried on a Web site somewhere, but where you're needed, what's in their food. That's the point.

WHITFIELD: All right, Gene, let me allow you to weigh in on this. How is it the food industry could be making it a little bit more clear for consumers so they know exactly what they are getting?

GENE GRABOWSKI, GROCERY MANUFACTURERS OF AMERICA: Well, the food industry has been doing this for decades now. I mean, if you go into certainly in a grocery store, restaurants are getting better at this.

I think that you made a key point, Fredricka, and that is there's a wide variety of choice available. Also, one of the accusations here is that somehow people are becoming addicted. And that's just irresponsible and unjust.

Food is delicious. Anybody will agree with you that it's nice to eat food, and you know, taste is everything, but it stimulates parts of the brain that are pleasure centers, just as when you exercise or when you do a good job on a speech. But the road that these lawyers are taking is really irresponsible.

WHITFIELD: Well, Gene...

BANZHAF: Excuse me, I was accused of being irresponsible. The allegation that fast-food can cause addictive like results in the brain just like nicotine comes from respective science magazine, based upon more than a dozen studies in which animals have, in fact, been addicted. We're suggesting not that it's conclusively proven, but that there is enough evidence that it might warrant a warning of the kind you frequently see, saying for example, several animal studies suggest that X causes cancer. It's not irresponsible.


WHITFIELD: John, let me interrupt for a moment. Gene, let me ask you this. How much more information should these food manufactures, food preparers provide to consumers so that consumers can be a bit more educated about exactly what they are getting?

GRABOWSKI: Well, you already see it on labels in supermarkets, grocery stores, and what have you on food that is sold...

WHITFIELD: But when you go to a fast-food restaurant you don't necessarily get the same kind of labels.

GRABOWSKI: That's right. And you'll be seeing more of that. You'll see a wide variety of choices. We are already seeing that in a lot of the quick-service restaurants around the country and around the world. So I think the marketplace is deciding. And that's the place for it to be done. The consumer has to have a choice, the consumer has to have more information to make those choices, and the industry is moving in that direction.

The lawsuits are a distraction; they are a sideshow. They will not lead to a solution to the obesity problems.

WHITFIELD: But you do see that with these lawsuits, it is going to spawn more?

GRABOWSKI: Not necessarily, we'll see what happens.


BANZHAF: ... and in fact, all the articles are suggesting that these changes Mr. Grabowski is talking about come because of the pressure and threat of lawsuits, not because these companies have suddenly gotten better.

GRABOWSKI: Well, we've made changes before there were lawsuits, Dr. Banzhaf. The food industry succeeds because it wants to have healthy, happy consumers, and it meets those consumer needs. And that's what decides, the marketplace, not the sideshow of accusations and lawsuits.

I was a news reporter for a long time before I joined the food industry, and we used to have a saying, that if you torture the data long enough, it will tell you anything you want it to. And the studies that are being promoted of suspicious sources that trial lawyers want to tout as some kind of warning is irresponsible.

BANZHAF: Bottom line, we have won three of the lawsuits, we're very close to winning two more, and one goes to court next week. That's the facts.


WHITFIELD: All right. John Banzhaf and Gene Grabowski, I'll let you gentlemen have the last few words on that. Thanks very much. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT