McDonald’s Responds to Nutrition, Obesity Concerns

Published April 1, 2006

McDonald’s Corporation, the largest restaurant chain in the world, has begun putting nutritional information on the packaging of its food. The initiative was rolled out at the Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy.

The packaging includes information on calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates, and sodium. The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) issued a statement praising the firm’s decision to put the nutritional information in such a visible place.

“Provision of this information at the point of purchase will give consumers the opportunity to learn about the nutritional composition of their food selections,” said Dr. Ruth Kava, nutrition director at ACSH. Kava also noted the information has long been available on the McDonald’s Web site and in informational brochures, but said putting it on the packaging “will increase the likelihood that people will actually read it.”

Response to Lawsuits

The increased and more visible disclosure of nutritional information on McDonald’s food is partly a response to lawsuits claiming McDonald’s and other restaurants have caused or contributed to obesity problems.

The first such suit, Pelman v. McDonald’s, was filed in August 2002 in the U.S. District Court of New York on behalf of two obese teenagers who claimed they had eaten McDonald’s food several times a week and became overweight as a result. That suit was thrown out of court in February 2003, and the plaintiffs quickly filed an amended complaint. The amended complaint was also dismissed, by a different judge, in January 2005.

The lawsuits prompted the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the so-called “Cheeseburger Bill”– the “Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act of 2005”–in late 2005. The bill would prevent lawsuits “against food manufacturers, marketers, distributors, advertisers, sellers, and trade associations for claims of injury relating to a person’s weight gain, obesity, or any health condition associated with weight gain or obesity.” The bill passed the U.S. House with a bipartisan majority, with more than 300 representatives voting for it.

The companion to the House bill is still awaiting action in the U.S. Senate. Nearly 20 states have passed their own “Cheeseburger Bills,” and others are considering them. At least one state, Wisconsin, passed a “Cheeseburger Bill” only to have it vetoed by the governor.

Ill. Turnaround

Illinois, which has been labeled a “Judicial Hellhole” by the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), a legal reform group, has moved to squelch lawsuits based on obesity claims. Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) signed the Illinois Commonsense Consumption Act, which became effective in January 2005 after it passed both the Illinois House and Senate by unanimous vote. The unanimous vote–and other actions by Blagojevich, the Democrat-led House and Senate, and the State Supreme Court–have contributed to what many experts say is an improving litigation climate in Illinois.

“Governor Blagojevich’s signing of the ‘Cheesburger Bill’ in Illinois is one more significant step in the state’s efforts to rid itself of the stigma of being a ‘judicial hellhole,'” said Maureen Martin, senior fellow for legal affairs at the Chicago-based Heartland Institute. “Unfortunately, Wisconsin seems to be going in the other direction. Governor Jim Doyle (D) vetoed similar legislation in 2004, and decisions by the Wisconsin Supreme Court since then make it likely that Wisconsin will be the newest state labeled a ‘judicial hellhole.'”

Responding to Customers

Addressing the decision by McDonald’s to add nutritional information to its food packaging, the Center for Individual Freedom, a Virginia-based constitutional rights advocacy group, issued a statement praising the McDonald’s decision as a “market-based solution” that avoids unneeded government intervention.

“This recent announcement proves that free markets work. After listening to its customers, McDonald’s is taking responsible steps to provide them with the tools they’ve asked for to make informed choices,” said Jeffrey Mazzella, the center’s president. “At the end of the day, it’s personal responsibility, including educated, individual choices about food intake and physical activity, which make the difference–not government intervention or litigious arm-twisting.”

Not everyone is satisfied with the McDonald’s decision. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a liberal advocacy group that supports lawsuits against McDonald’s and other food manufacturers and restaurants, said in a news release responding to the McDonald’s initiative, “a far better step would be to provide calorie counts right on the menu board.”

Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, president of ACSH, doesn’t believe that is a practical step. “Putting even more numbers and data on the menu board would not only be a logistical nightmare but would turn the meal into a clinical event,” she wrote in a November 28 essay published in the Washington Times. Whelan concludes, “Enough already with these patronizing policies that assume we are all idiots who need the nutrition nannies continuously scolding us even at point of sale.”

Sean Parnell ([email protected]) is vice president external affairs for The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

A summary of the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act of 2005 is available online at