Are Fast Food
Restaurants To Blame?From
eDiets - The online diet, fitness, and healthy living resource
Caesar Barber will go down in history
as the first man to sue fast food restaurants for making him overweight and
The 56-year-old New Yorker is the
plaintiff in a class action lawsuit that points the finger at McDonald's,
Wendy's, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken as the leading cause of obesity
and other health-related problems.
Barber claims his pair of heart
attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol -- not to mention
his obesity -- are the direct results of eating fast foods on a regular basis.
The 510", 270-pound plaintiff
claims no family history of any of the ailments from which he suffers.
Its fast foods fault, he says.
"They said '100 percent beef.' I
thought that meant it was good for you," Barber told Newsday. "I thought
the food was OK.
"Those people in the advertisements
don't really tell you what's in the food. It's all fat, fat and more fat. Now
Barber, his lawyer and all the other
people who've jumped on the bad food bandwagon are convinced they have a strong
case. But many people who've heard of this lawsuit are shaking their heads and
muttering it "frivolous" at best.
But George Washington University law
professor John Banzhaf doesnt need convincing. The lawyer firmly believes
theres merit to Barbers accusations. Banzhaf also believes he and
millions of other patrons have been duped for decades by the fast food
restaurants. Banzhaf has come aboard as an advisor to Barbers case which
he says is the latest in a growing string of legal actions taken against
so-called Big Food in recent years.
Banzhaf is no stranger to butting
heads with big business. The public health advocate spent the past 35 years
campaigning against the tobacco industry. He was one of the first lawyers to
sue Big Tobacco in the '60s. Now the attorney/activist has turned his energies
to a new archenemy.
Banzhaf and his law students have
already gone after McDonalds for allegedly misrepresenting French fries
by not disclosing that they contained beef fat, a fact that left many
vegetarians horrified. Theyve gone after Pizza Hut for using beef fat in
the Veggie Lovers pizza. Theres also the suit against the makers of
Pirates Booty corn and rice puff snack food for under-representing the fat
content by more than 340 percent.
McDonalds issued an apology,
agreed to provide adequate disclosure of the fat content of its French fries
and will pay out more than $12 million in the one suit. Banzhaf believes a
precedent has been set.
Obesity is running rampant and an
estimated 40 percent of our meals coming from restaurants. To Banzhaf this
makes for a clear-cut case of negligence. Although a cheeseburger isnt as
deadly as a cigarette, there are things he says restaurants can do that tobacco
companies could not.
As a practical matter, tobacco
companies cant change cigarettes in such a way to avoid liability,
Banzhaf tells eDiets. They cant say, weve seen the
light. Were afraid of lawsuits. Well change and stop making
"But the food industry can say,
weve seen the light. Were afraid of lawsuits. We can start
providing clear and conspicuous disclosure of calories and fat content. We can
provide healthful alternatives. We can do this and continue to make tons of
Were suggesting a few
small, simple changes that wont hurt them.
Currently, consumers are lucky if the
restaurants post the nutritional information at all. And most of the time when
they do, Banzhaf says, its out of sight, out of mind.
You should be able to go into a
McDonalds, look up at the board, and right up there where it says meal 1,
2, 3 and 4, it should say, this meal has 120 percent of the calories you
should have in one day and 95 percent of the fat you should have in one
day. It should be right there where youre looking, not stuck
somewhere in a book or a brochure.
When youre watching
television at night and you see the commercial for the big triple bacon
cheeseburger, there should also be something that says that it has more fat
than you should have in an entire day. There should be a warning that fat
consumption can be hazardous to your health or lead to heart attacks. Maybe
then that person who gets a Big Mac attack will decide against getting the Big
Posting the nutritional values in
plain view. Issuing warning labels on fast food. Offering healthier
alternatives to the traditional fatty fare. Banzhaf claims these are "the
profits" he hopes to earn through litigation. He tells eDiets he wont
make a dime from the suits. And that's fine with him.
Banzhaf says hed rather the
government be doing the dirty work. Whether its having public service
announcements about the dangers of fast foods or creating a sin tax on junk
food, there are plenty of steps the government could be taking, Banzhaf notes.
But since Big Government hasn't gone
after Big Food to Banzhaf's liking he feels obligated to take on the No. 2
public health issue of obesity the same way he took on the No. 1 public health
issue of smoking. One reason his public health beef extends to pizza, chicken
and burger joints: studies show smoking kills 500,000 people every year, while
obesity accounts for a tragic 300,000 death annually.
What do our dietitians and
nutritionists think about idea of someone suing a restaurant for making them
fat? Could it possibly put an end to the obesity problem or get people to quit
eating junk food the same way tobacco lawsuits got people to quit smoking?
eDiets director of nutrition Susan
Burke says that while she applauds Banzhafs efforts with anti-smoking
campaigns, shes not so sure the same thing can be accomplished by suing
fast food joints.
Food is not an addictive
substance the way cigarettes and nicotine are," Susan says. "We have laws
against cigarettes and nicotine being sold to minors because minors dont
have the same maturity as adults. Thats why they enact laws for
"You cant legislate food the
same way. Food is not a physically addictive substance. Nobody can put it in
your mouth, chew it and swallow it for you. You cant legislate thinness
Susan does however agree with
Banzhafs call to action. Restaurants can provide healthier choices, less
fried foods and smaller portions, she says. They can also stop penalizing
customers for taking the healthy options (i.e. the 39-cent cheeseburger vs. the
The bottom line: people have to take
responsibility for their actions. Susan maintains the only real victims are the
children, who dont have the ability to choose.
Nothing will change until the
American public buys into the fact that obesity is going to kill them. Then
were going to make a change. And that takes education. We need to start
with how we treat our children.
When I was a kid physical
fitness was a part of daily life. School lunches meant healthy choices. Portion
sizes were smaller. You didnt have the opportunity to buy sodas. Now
physical fitness is optional in some schools. Some school lunch programs fund
themselves with the sales of fast food and kids can buy junk food instead of
regular meals. Thats irresponsible and thats what should be
While there are no guarantees that
Barber will win his suit against the Fab Four of fast food chains, Banzhaf says
its a step in the right direction. He knows it will take time to slay the
Big Food Goliath; lawyers litigated at least 20 years before a jury ever placed
part of the blame on the tobacco industry.
Im not sure we can
necessarily do it in the first, second or even fifth case, but in the end, we
will," he says with confidence.
To learn more about this public
health advocate, click here.