U.S. Rep. Ric Keller (R-Florida) and Kraft Foods Inc. have launched separate efforts aimed at a similar goal: to help Americans take more personal responsibility for their waistlines.
Keller is the sponsor of H.R. 339, the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act. Introduced in January, the measure has attracted 66 cosponsors. In mid May, the measure was referred to the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, which held hearings in June.
Kraft Foods Inc.–makers of Kraft cheese, Nabisco cookies and crackers, Oscar Mayer meats, and Post cereals–announced on July 1 it is taking steps to help fight obesity in children by reducing portion sizes, eliminating the company’s in-school marketing program, and educating consumers.
Keller’s bill shields manufacturers, distributors, and sellers of food and beverages from lawsuits blaming them for “weight gain, obesity, or a health condition related to weight gain or obesity.” Keller–who figures he’s about 20 pounds over his ideal weight–thinks consumers should stop blaming “fast” food purveyors and “junk” food manufacturers for their weight issues.
“We believe there should be common sense in a food court, not blaming other people in a legal court whenever there is an excessive consumption of fast food,” Keller said at an Orlando news conference when he introduced the bill. “We think most people understand it’s common sense that if you eat unlimited amounts of supersize fries and milkshakes and Big Macs … that can possibly lead to obesity and things like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”
Keller introduced his bill five days after a federal judge in New York threw out a class-action lawsuit that blamed McDonald’s food for children’s health problems. (See “Obese Kids Re-Plead Their Case,” Health Care News, April 2003.)
Testifying before a June 19 subcommittee hearing, Christianne Ricchi, owner of Washington, DC’s i Ricchi Ristorante, supported Keller’s measure. “Personal responsibility, moderation, and physical activity are all key ingredients to a healthy lifestyle,” she pointed out. “To solely target the restaurant industry is overly simplistic.”
Of course, those who file suit on behalf of obese clients aren’t targeting only the restaurant industry, but food purveyors generally. Some observers say that’s why Kraft Foods announced on July 1 a first-of-its-kind effort to help consumers tackle obesity, especially among children.
In a news release issued July 1, Kraft spokesman Michael Mudd, senior vice president for corporate affairs, explained, “We want to make sure that what we sell and how we sell it are responsive to changing patterns of diet, activity, and health.”
Kraft plans to assemble an advisory council of international experts on behavior, nutrition, health, and communications. The council will recommend improved nutritional content for products and the development of alternative products where appropriate. It will, for example, determine the appropriate calorie content or other health standard for snack-sized packaged foods like Oreo cookies.
Kraft says it hopes to develop its standards by the end of the year and implement them over two to three years. Kraft intends to downsize existing products that are bigger than its council recommends. The standards likely will vary among product types, Mudd said, with more calories allotted for meals than for snacks or desserts.
Kraft also said it will eliminate its in-school marketing promotions: book covers and posters, sports arena scoreboard sponsorships, contests, and free product samples. School vending machines will continue to be stocked with Kraft products, although the advisory council could decide some snacks offered are inappropriate and should be pulled.
Some question the company’s motives but applaud the potential result.
Dr. Henry Anhalt, director of pediatric endocrinology at New York’s Infants and Children’s Hospital of Brooklyn, said he thinks Kraft is trying to avoid lawsuits such as those that have hit the tobacco industry. But he added, “Although I may question what their motivation is, anything that can perhaps decrease portion sizes and caloric intake in kids can have dramatic effects on obesity.”
Mudd said the company is making the changes because it’s the right thing to do, but “If it also discourages a plaintiff’s attorney or unfair legislation, that’s just fine with us.”
Dr. Michael Arnold Glueck, a syndicated columnist who writes on medical-legal policy issues, told Health Care News lawsuit avoidance should not be Kraft’s goal. “If you say and do nothing they will sue for negligence,” he noted. “If you respond with a sensible solution, they will interpret it as an admission of prior guilt and complicity and sue you anyway.”
“The decision to eat or not to eat a product is up to the parents and child,” Glueck continued. “People say they want free choice and less government interference, but if they get obese they still want the right to sue for their own poor choice.”
Restaurant owner Ricchi was less pessimistic.
“Personal responsibility remains a strong American value,” she testified to the Senate subcommittee. Citing a Grocery Manufacturers Association survey, she pointed out “89 percent [of Americans] say personal lifestyles–lack of exercise or watching television”–are most responsible for obesity among Americans.
She also reported, “According to National Restaurant Association research, an overwhelming 95 percent of Americans feel they are qualified to make their own decisions on what to order when dining out.”
“What people eat is ultimately a matter of personal choice,” agreed Roger Deromedi, co-CEO of Kraft. “But we can help make it an educated choice.”
Conrad F. Meier is managing editor of Health Care News. His email address is [email protected].
For more information …
The full text of Rep. Ric Keller’s H.R. 339, the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document #12548.
Testimony presented to the June 19 hearing on Keller’s bill is available on the Internet at http://www.house.gov/judiciary/commercial.htm.