- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

A Senate bill to be introduced today would protect food manufacturers and sellers from obesity-liability lawsuits.

It is the latest legislative attempt to ward off trial lawyers who are targeting fast-food chains and school districts for litigation.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, today is set to introduce a bill that prohibits lawsuits in which the plaintiffs say food companies and restaurants have made them overweight or obese.

The bill does not preclude other types of lawsuits, including those claiming false advertising or injuries from food consumption.

“This bill does not outlaw any of the traditional litigation nor does it immunize the food industry,” Mr. McConnell said. “But what it does do is nip in the bud this absurd new predatory practice” of suing the food industry with class-action lawsuits.

It is the second congressional bill to address what the food industry once called frivolous lawsuits from a group of trial lawyers.

U.S. Rep. Ric Keller, Florida Republican, introduced a bill in the House last month with broader protections for the food industry, which was the target of eight lawsuits in the past few months.

Mr. McConnell acknowledged that several fast-food chains were located in his hometown of South Louisville, but said he was introducing the legislation because of a long-standing interest in tort reform.

“Each of us Americans are responsible for what we choose to eat,” he said.

Analysts at global-financial services firm J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. have warned that more lawsuits are likely. The firm ranked Hershey Foods Corp., Cadbury, Coca-Cola Co. Inc., PepsiCo Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc. as the five most at-risk food companies to face obesity-related lawsuits.

“Obesity is certainly a problem in this country and something to work on, but it won’t be solved by suing innocent food companies,” Mr. McConnell said.

More than half of all U.S. adults and 13 percent of children are clinically obese, costing taxpayers more than $117 billion in medical costs and causing 300,000 deaths a year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

But consumer health advocates say the bill does not hold fast-food chains and manufacturers accountable for marketing fatty foods that some scientific bodies say have addictive qualities.

“If these lawsuits are frivolous as the food industry has called them, then the courts will throw them out,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington nonprofit, consumer advocacy group.

Mr. Jacobson’s group has worked closely with D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, on legislation mandating that restaurant chains disclose nutritional information on their menus or menu boards.

Mr. Mendelson’s bill, introduced last week, would require restaurants with 10 or more locations in the city, such as 7-Eleven, Au Bon Pain and Kentucky Fried Chicken, to list the total calories, carbohydrates, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium data on all of its products.

“If this takes effect, I’ll be happy when I go into a restaurant and be able to see the nutritional content of what I’m eating,” he said.

The council is expected to hold hearings after returning from its summer recess.

But Scott Vinson, a lobbyist at a Washington trade association, argues the disclosure would be impractical and nearly impossible because of the variety in the products.

“Because you can have it your way, a hamburger will have different nutritional content if you don’t want the special sauce or add cheese,” said Mr. Vinson, senior director for government relations at the National Council of Chain Restaurants.

Mr. Vinson added that fast-food chains like McDonald’s Corp. and Burger King Brands Inc. have nutritional information on brochures and Web sites for the public to examine.

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