- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

An obese fast-food fanatic who ate the fatty fare as much as five times a week is suing the country's four leading chains, blaming the restaurants for his weight problem and a series of heart attacks.

Caesar Barber, 56, says McDonald's Corp., Burger King Corp., Wendy's International and KFC Corp. have inaccurately posted nutritional information and deceptively advertised their products.

"They said, '100 percent beef.' I thought that meant it was good for you," said Mr. Barber, a 5-foot 10-inch, 272-pound maintenance worker from New York. "Those people in the advertisements don't really tell you what's in the food. It's all fat, fat and more fat. Now I'm obese."

Mr. Barber's attorney, Samuel Hirsch, likened the case the first of its kind in the food industry to lawsuits filed against the tobacco industry. He said fast food creates a de facto addiction, or, as he called it, a "craving" in its consumers, particularly the poor and children.

"There is direct deception when someone omits telling people food digested is detrimental to their health," Mr. Hirsch said.

McDonald's spokesman Walt Riker called the assertions "ridiculous," saying the chain's "menu features choice and variety with lots of options for consumers." A spokesman for Burger King declined to comment on the pending litigation.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Bronx Supreme Court, has drawn plaudits from medical groups and criticism from restaurant associations, which called the lawsuit "senseless, baseless and ridiculous to compare food to anything addictive."

Steven C. Anderson, president of the National Restaurant Association in Washington, said that restaurants have a wide variety of menu choices and that customers must choose responsibly and with moderation.

"Obviously, this lawsuit is a blatant attempt to capitalize on the recent publicity and news stories on the growing rates of obesity, and this type of improper litigation is a clear abuse of our justice system," said Mr. Anderson, whose organization represents 858,000 restaurants and food-service outlets, with 11.6 million employees.

Mr. Hirsch said he hopes the lawsuit will force the fast-food industry to offer a greater variety to consumers, including vegetarian meals, smaller sizes and meals with fewer grams of fat. He also said he wants federal legislation that would require warning labels on fast food similar to those on tobacco products.

The four chains have been providing nutritional information, including calorie and fat content, of their meals since 1990, when Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act.

Mike Burita, a spokesman for the Center for Consumer Freedom in Washington, described the lawsuit as an "ambulance chase" on a national scale.

"All that's missing is a neck brace," he said. "There isn't good or bad food. There are good or bad lifestyles. It all comes down to what you choose to eat."

Doctors and nutrition experts, however, praised the lawsuit and warned that doctors who prescribe meat-heavy diets could also be liable in the future.

"This is no doubt just the first of many lawsuits holding the food industry at least partially to blame for America's diet-related epidemics," said Neal Barnard, president of the Washington-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit organization that promotes preventive medicine.

Decades of scientific evidence show that the cholesterol and saturated fat in beef, chicken, pork and dairy products dramatically increase the risk of colon cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, obesity and other diseases, Mr. Barnard said.

Mr. Barber, who has been eating fast food since the 1950s, said he suffered heart attacks in 1996 and 1999, and has diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Mr. Barber said there is no history of heart disease or diabetes in his family.

He told reporters Thursday that he started eating fast food because it was cheap and efficient. He said he believed the food was good for him until his doctor cautioned him otherwise.

Legal analysts say Mr. Barber's case is important because it touches on the issue of deception through marketing and advertising, and not the issue of food labeling, which has been the subject of many lawsuits in the past.

"If it turns out that a food company is getting kids to eat unhealthy food or food in unhealthy quantities that will make it vulnerable to attack," said Richard Daynard, head of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University Law School.

Mr. Daynard, however, partially discounted the food-tobacco comparison made by Mr. Hirsch. There is no such thing as "secondhand eating" and that no amount of smoking is healthy, unlike good eating habits, he said.

"But there are similarities," he said. "Some of the marketers misrepresent their products either explicitly or implicitly through half-truths."

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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