'Big Food' Gets the Obesity
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.
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.