- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2003

The fast-food industry, under increasing pressure from critics who call it the main culprit in making America a nation of fatties, yesterday cited a U.S. Chamber of Commerce report that suggests home-cooking is at least partly to blame.

The chamber commissioned former White House economist Todd Buchholz to examine what factors have contributed to the growing obesity problem.

While more Americans eat at fast-food restaurants, Mr. Buchholz said in his report, they eat 75 percent of their meals at home, where portion sizes have more than doubled in the past two decades.

Mr. Buchholz also found most American adults:

• Are snacking in between meals and eating 200 more daily calories than necessary.

• Work in sedentary jobs during the day and have cut back on physical activity after work.

• Buy more food because prices have dropped while personal income has increased.

Families also eat more because they now need to spend only about 10 percent of household income on food — as opposed to 17 percent of household income in 1960, Mr. Buchholz said.

“The misnomer in all of this is that Americans have suddenly begun gaining weight, when in fact people have been gaining weight over the past 100 years. It’s only recently risen to a point where more weight gain is having negative impacts on society,” he said at a press conference yesterday.

But Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at a D.C. health-advocacy group, said fast-food chains and restaurants share some blame in the nation’s obesity epidemic (an estimated 60 percent of American adults are overweight), which cost taxpayers $117 billion and caused 300,000 deaths in 2001.

“Fast-food restaurants aren’t solely responsible, but they share in some of the responsibility of making it difficult for Americans to eat well,” by marketing to children and hiding nutritional information, Ms. Wootan said.

Ms. Wootan said litigation could push food companies to label their products better and restaurants to have calorie information on the menus.

However, expensive, class-action lawsuits could force franchises in the $150 billion industry to raise food prices and put jobs at risk, Mr. Buchholz argued.

“Fast food has been the key in lowering the cost of protein and can be a reasonable part of a healthy diet,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration, the nation’s main food regulator, already has more definitive labeling plans for junk food.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan said in a speech on Tuesday that the agency would soon require fatty foods with trans fat to have a more defined label.

Trans fat, or trans fatty acid, is a nonessential fat found in hydrogenated oils, grease and shortening.

An FDA spokeswoman said the regulation is imminent, but did not specify when it would take effect.

The FDA, which proposed similar labeling in 1999, is considering the use of a warning label for foods with trans fat.

Kraft Foods Inc. and fast-food giant McDonald’s Corp. also have stepped up defensive efforts against obesity lawsuits by establishing health initiatives and advisory councils.

On Tuesday, Kraft said the company would produce smaller serving sizes and form an advisory council to provide healthy alternatives to high saturated-fat products.

Kraft, an Altria Group Inc. subsidiary, had been sued earlier in May by a California lawyer for not warning consumers about trans fat in its Oreo cookies.

The suit was dropped and Kraft now plans to add the information to its cookie packages.

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