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The Physicians Committee

Congress Must Not Grant Legal Immunity to Big Food

By Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

This piece was published Mar. 17, 2004, in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Imagine yourself an 8-year-old growing up in 2004. If you’re a normal kid, you watch—and take as gospel—about 10,000 food-related commercials a year, the vast majority for candy, soda, and other junk. Your closest playground is at McDonald’s. Your school cafeteria almost always has greasy cheeseburgers. Your class is learning to count with a Hershey Milk Chocolate Bar Fractions Book. And that’s just the start of it. Chances are your classmates are chubby—obesity rates have doubled in children since 1990—at risk for diabetes, and clueless about healthy food.

In fact, kids are in such bad shape today that the food industry is worried it could be held accountable for their poor health. Throughout the country, Big Food’s supporters have been quietly introducing state bills that grant the industry sweeping immunity for its contributing role in our nation’s obesity epidemic. And in Washington, the House of Representatives just passed the so-called “Cheeseburger Bill” which—if approved by the Senate—would prevent anyone from ever holding the industry liable for its involvement in this public health crisis. Sponsored by Rep. Ric Keller (Rep-FL), an avowed fast-food fan whose major donors include Outback Steakhouse, H.R 339 (“The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act”) is anti-consumer, anti-health, and at best, dangerously short-sighted.

Big Food’s argument, familiar to anyone who’s read the paper in the past few years, goes like this: Money-grubbing trial lawyers are going to clog up the courts with frivolous lawsuits blaming the food industry for America's bad eating habits. Actually, fans of any TV legal drama know that judges love to throw such lawsuits out of court; and in real life, our legal system offers remedies to eliminate frivolous suits at early stages.

The immunity bills couldn’t come at a worse time. Health advocates are just beginning to discover the food industry’s involvement in the obesity crisis and its related epidemics of heart disease and diabetes. Investigations by our organization and other public health advocates have revealed just how successful Big Food has been in manipulating the public, the government, and even the scientific community.

From sponsoring scientific studies that “prove” its products are healthy to getting kids hooked on hard-to-resist toys, Big Food employs a myriad of techniques—some overt, some hidden—to influence what we know and believe about food. This PR arsenal includes upwards of $3 billion a year in advertising (most of which is used to promote unhealthy food), sizeable political contributions, a revolving door between government and corporate boardrooms, and much, much more. While personal responsibility is clearly part of the obesity equation, food choices are not made in a vacuum.

And Big Food’s biggest defense—that food isn’t addictive—is losing ground as well. Recent studies have found biochemical evidence that certain foods, in fact, are addictive. Maybe not as addictive as tobacco, but addictive nonetheless. Meat, chocolate, sugar, and cheese all spark the release of opiate-like substances that trigger the brain’s pleasure center and seduce us into eating them again and again. And unfortunately, the big chain restaurants, well aware of these natural cravings, have teamed up with the USDA to push greater consumption of cheese and other unhealthy foods.

But if Big Food has its way, we may never find out just how manipulative the food industry has been. If passed by the Senate, the “Cheeseburger Bill” would mean that public interest lawyers will never have access to the kinds of documents obtained during the discovery process in the tobacco lawsuits, documents that helped prove the guilt of the tobacco industry.

Even worse, without the threat of litigation, Big Food would likely stop the much-needed reforms it’s recently begun implementing, like discontinuing Supersize portions. In fact, public interest groups consider tobacco-like lawsuits an excellent tool to effect social change. The tobacco lawsuits, for example, curtailed cigarette advertising to minors.

Without changes like these, what chance does an 8-year-old have?

Neal D. Barnard, M.D., is a nutrition researcher and the president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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