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Oppose the Bill Shielding the Fast Food Industry

February 23, 2004
Honorable F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr.
House Judiciary Committee
Room 2138 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
Honorable John Conyers, Jr.
Ranking Member
House Judiciary Committee
Room 2138 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
Re: Consumers Union’s opposition to H.R. 339, a bill shielding the fast food industry from liability for the health effects of its food and beverages and failure to disclose those effects
Dear Chairman Sensenbrenner and Ranking Member Conyers:
Consumers Union asks you to oppose H.R. 339, the so-called “Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act.” Regardless of where one stands on the viability of potential lawsuits against the fast food industry, CU believes that providing blanket immunity to any industry is ill-advised. Moreover, a number of important facts should be seriously considered before shielding any behavior from legal scrutiny.
The fast food industry exerts an enormous, potentially harmful impact on lower income consumers:
● According to former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, fast food restaurants crowd out access to healthier food in inner-city neighborhoods.
● Satcher argues that fast food marketing in inner-city neighborhoods is comparable to overly aggressive tobacco marketing in inner-city neighborhoods during the 1990s.
● According to Northeastern University, “McDonald’s alone spent $1.1 billion on advertising in 2001; the government’s budget for a pro-fruit/vegetable campaign was $1.1 million.” (emphases added)
● “[P]eople in the poorest urban areas have two and half times more exposure to fast food outlets than people in the wealthiest category.”
The fast food industry may also exert undue influence on children, regardless of their social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds:
● According to CBS News, “[t]he highest levels of fast-food consumption were found in youngsters with higher household income levels, boys, older children, blacks and children living in the South.”
● “Every day, nearly one-third of U.S. children aged 4 to 19 eat fast food, which likely packs on about six extra pounds per child per year and increases the risk of obesity, a study of 6,212 youngsters found.”
● According to Consumer Reports, “[a]-not-yet published 15-year study from Harvard Medical School of more than 3,700 young adults from across the country found that eating fast food more than twice a week increased the risk of obesity by about 50 percent for whites….”
Recent data suggests that nearly 15 percent of our children are obese.
In spite of these alarming statistics, the fast food industry continues to engage in aggressive marketing to children:
● According to Marion Nestle, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, “[b]usinesses spend an estimated $13 billion a year marketing food and drinks to U.S. children and their parents.”
● According to Healthy School Meals Resource System, a project of the USDA, “[a]dvertisers appeal directly to parents AND teach kids to influence their parents’ purchases. The food industry links food with entertainment and toys instead of with growth and health. … Products are marketed through television, radio, print media, coupons, films and books.” In addition, “[s]oft drink companies have pouring rights contracts in schools. Fast food chains sell food in school and hospital cafeterias. The in-school television network Channel One has advertising. Computer-literate kids are used as research subjects through online panels and chat rooms.”
● According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, McDonald’s has a Barbie doll “dressed up as a McDonald’s clerk, feeding French fries, burgers, and Sprite to kid sister Kelly in a restaurant playset.”
Moreover, the fast food industry has fought efforts to provide consumers with labeling information about its food. In 1990, the fast food industry fought for and won an exemption from the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which requires manufacturers of packaged food to list nutrition information on labels. The industry also opposes H.R 3444, the “Menu Education and Labeling Act,” which would require it to tell consumers the nutritional contents of its food and beverages. The National Restaurant Association says that H.R. 3444 is unnecessary because “the great majority of quickservice chain restaurants have been proactively providing nutritional information to their consumers without intrusive government mandates for some time.”
The facts and figures cited above demonstrate that there is much to learn about the fast food industry’s products and marketing practices. Regardless of one’s positions on the merits of lawsuits against this industry, this is not the time to bestow blanket liability protection on the fast food industry. In fact, the industry’s concerns about liability have already brought about changes in their menu offerings. As Consumer Reports told our readers this past January:
“[s]ome big food companies are responding by changing the products they offer. McDonald’s has introduced a successful line of entree salads, and it is test marketing a fresh apple dip dessert and an ‘adult Happy Meal’ that includes salad, bottled water, and a step meter to encourage more walking. Pizza Hut has added a thin crust Fit ‘N Delicious pie with half the cheese. Taco Bell customers can now replace cheese with low-calorie, fat free Fiesta Salsa. ”
According to USA Today, the fast food industry is actually starting to sell healthier food out of concern about lawsuits.
We ask you to oppose H.R. 339. Please contact Sally Greenberg or Mister Phillips at (202) 462-6262 for more information.