'Big Food' Gets the Obesity Message,
New York Times Editorial [7/10/03]

"the fast-growing campaign to hold food companies responsible for adverse nutritional effects, may not have been so frivolous after all."

Almost everyone laughed when two Bronx teenagers sued McDonald's last year for making them obese. Legions of critics said it was ludicrous for the overweight girls to blame a fast-food company instead of their own nutritional ignorance, lack of willpower, genetic predispositions, failure to exercise or whatever else may play a role in the multifaceted problem of obesity. Commentators and late-night comedians had a field day deriding "frivolous" lawsuits, and a federal judge, in dismissing the case in January, explained that "it is not the place of the law to protect them from their own excesses." Yet now the food industry is behaving as if the suit (now amended and refiled), or at least the fast-growing campaign to hold food companies responsible for adverse nutritional effects, may not have been so frivolous after all.

Kraft Foods, an industry giant that makes Oreo cookies, Velveeta cheese and Oscar Mayer cold cuts, among other items, announced last week that it would work to reduce the portions in single-serving packages, develop healthier products with the help of experts and eliminate snack-food promotions in the schools. (The company will continue, however, to sell its snacks in school vending machines.) The move was presented as a statesmanlike effort to help combat the obesity epidemic, but analysts suggested that the company was scrambling to take the high road in advance of a potential litigation explosion like the one that staggered the tobacco industry. Kraft is a sister company of Philip Morris and is thus well positioned to understand the legal risks of selling unhealthy products.

Trying to stay one step ahead of the regulators, Kraft, McDonald's and Frito-Lay have all said they will work to reduce or eliminate artery-clogging trans fats from their foods. The Food and Drug Adminstration has not yet determined how much trans fat is acceptable, but yesterday the agency said it would require food makers to start listing the amount in their products on the labels. That is the least that can be done to help consumers avoid some particularly unhealthy fats that are ubiquitous in snack foods, baked goods and many offerings at fast-food outlets and family-style restaurants.

Skeptics worry, with good reason, about the depth and sincerity of the food industry's late-inning conversion to healthy eating. An industry that has prospered by selling high-fat, high-calorie or sugary foods in ever larger quantities will probably be loath to deviate too much from a proven path to profits. But any smart chief executive will feel the increasing pressure from public health officials to combat obesity and will heed recent warnings from Wall Street that big food companies with a high percentage of unhealthy products face major legal and financial risks. If the companies are really serious about refashioning and downsizing their products, they can give a major boost to the global fight against obesity.