Don't Let 'Big Food' off the Hook, Activist Group Says

Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:04pm EDT
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( - A group that advocates animal "rights" and vegetarian diets wants lawmakers to kill a bill protecting the food industry from obesity lawsuits.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine -- described by some as a "radical animal rights group" -- Tuesday urged the House of Representatives to kill the "Cheeseburger Bill," which is formally known as the "Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act."

The bill, introduced by Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.), is intended to prevent frivolous lawsuits against the food industry, including lawsuits that blame fast-food outlets and food manufacturers for consumers' obesity. The House is scheduled to vote on the bill this week.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine complains the bill "absolves the food industry from any legal liability for its contributing role in the nation's obesity epidemic."

PCRM President Neal Barnard said, "H.R. 339 is an unsavory attempt to protect corporate profits at the expense of American health.

"The bill strips the public of its right to seek any redress against food manufacturers for their contribution to the obesity crisis, and the related epidemics of heart disease and diabetes. Given that we are just now beginning to discover the industry's involvement, granting them sweeping immunity is, at best, dangerously short-sighted," Barnard added.

The PCRM press release accuses some food makers of deliberately targeting consumers who are vulnerable to "food addictions."

According to PCRM, "Recent studies reveal that some unhealthy foods -- such as chocolate, sugar, meat, and cheese -- are physically addictive. They cause the release of opiate-like compounds that stimulate the brain's pleasure center. Lawsuits could help uncover the extent to which the food industry knew about and took advantage of these food addictions."

Supporters of the bill say weight control is a matter of personal responsibility. They see obesity lawsuits against fast-food restaurants and food manufacturers as money-makers for trial lawyers.

At least 20 states are currently considering legislation to protect food providers from frivolous and costly obesity lawsuits, said the Center for Consumer Freedom -- a vocal critic of PCRM.

"Of course, such common sense measures don't sit well with the sue-happy captains of the food police," the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) said on its website.

The CCF notes that in testimony before Congress last year, George Washington University Law Professor John Banzhaf argued that if "these fat lawsuits are truly frivolous" then "the industry needs no Congressional protection." But CCF notes that Banzhaf is the same man who said, "Somewhere there is going to be a judge and a jury that will buy this [obesity lawsuit], and once we get the first verdict ... it will open the floodgates."

Banzhaf played a key role in suing the tobacco industry, and he's made it clear that his next target is the food industry.

PCRM admits that litigation against the tobacco industry is the model for planned lawsuits against the food industry: "Ever since the first fast-food lawsuit was filed in 2002 on behalf of an obese New Yorker who maintained that McDonald's contributed to his obesity and diabetes, a growing number of health advocates, using lessons learned in the tobacco wars, have promoted obesity legislation as a tool for much-needed reform," the group said.

Said PCRM's Barnard: "We were smart enough not to grant the tobacco industry immunity years ago, and tough enough not to give the gun industry immunity last week. Let's not treat Big Food any differently."

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine describes itself as a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, especially good nutrition; opposes unethical human experimentation; and promotes alternatives to animal research.

The Center for Consumer Freedom says PCRM is "a radical animal rights group that is posing as a health organization." It also says PCRM is partially funded by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

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