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We had a story yesterday about how the food industry seems to feel it has avoided the litigation problems that plagued the tobacco industry, even though it wasn’t that long ago that some were suggesting that food companies might be held legally and financially responsible for the nation’s obesity problems.

We commented:

Clearly, it makes more sense for consumers to take full and complete responsibility for their own health and eating habits. Litigation does very little other than make lawyers rich, and that is never a good thing.

That said, we have to say that the tobacco litigation has been a positive thing for the nation’s health. It has been proven that those companies were knowingly marketing products that both addicted and killed people, and their feet should have been held to the fire; there is a special section of hell reserved for tobacco executives.

We’re not sure that the same standard exists for the food industry. But we are certain that the food industry can be a positive force if it embraces the obesity crisis as something it can help fight, can help inform consumers about.

“Commonsense consumption laws” don’t solve the problem. What they should do is create a climate in which common sense approaches to fighting the obesity problem can be crafted and implemented.

To which MNB user Paul Rupple responded:

You seem to be speaking from both sides of your mouth on this issue. Either this type of litigation is bad in that it accomplishes little other than to make lawyers rich, or it has a positive social effect. I don’t believe that the tobacco litigation has had the type of positive impact that you believe that it has. The monetary rewards have gone predominantly into state general funds, with very little being used to change behavior or aid those suffering under the effects of smoking.

Tobacco companies have not made major changes in the way that they make or market their products because of the litigation either. All in all, the lawyers got rich, states got a short-term infusion into their coffers and the tobacco companies suffered a hit to their bottom lines; yet teenagers continue to pick up the habit and adult smokers continue in their ways.

As for the food industry, have the executives at the fast food companies really changed their approaches? Didn’t Hardee’s and Burger King recently announce new products with skyrocketing calorie and fat gram counts? I believe the Hardee’s Monster Thickburger tips the scales at over 1400 calories and 107 grams of fat; while the BK Enormous Omelet Sandwich weighs in at 740 calories and 46 grams of fat. Again, I don’t’ think that we need to sue them into submission or reward the consumers of those products with lawsuit settlements for the effects of consuming products which they knew would have negative consequences. People have known that smoking is dangerous for a long time, and people also know that consuming too much fast food can be a dangerous decision; however, ultimately we need to let people know of the dangers and then allow them to make their decisions and live with the consequences.

That’s a fair criticism.

We are conflicted about this. We hate these lawsuits, and you make a good case for how they often don’t work. But we also think that there is no way that, say, McDonald’s would have improved its menu if it had not been for the threat of litigation.

If they say otherwise, it is a crock.

Over on, Phil Lempert makes a good point about all this – that the food industry may be deluding itself if it thinks there is no problem simply because it has dodged a bullet.

There’s a line from “Three Days of the Condor” that seems appropriate. It is when Robert Redford looks at his CIA handler and says: “You think that not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth.”

Another MNB user wrote:

Legal plagues from people like Banzhaf won't be stopped by reason, commonsense or appeals to human decency anymore than sharks in bloody water will be deterred by a few drops of perfume. Our tort system is beyond being a forum for injured parties to seek relief; it has become a vein of money to be mined by 'legal capitalists' disinterested in the issue they claim to champion. Where I grew up we used to call these types carpetbaggers and they could always find a patsy to front their so-called compassionate efforts, a person who was usually discarded like the trash immediately after the scoundrel vacuumed out a few wallets. These self-proclaimed consumer activists boldly state they will continue chipping away at any law passed to encourage personal responsibility. What's the motivation for a person to claim as a virtue constant efforts to undermine individual accountability?

If saving people from dying as a result of food is their goal, why don't they bring their focus on corrupt regimes around the world that intentionally starve people simply to advance their personal power? Certainly the number of people dying from starvation or the results of malnutrition around the world exceed the numbers in this country Banzhaf and his ilk claim will benefit from their legal actions. Is it this class of people don't fit into the carpetbaggers' strategic plans?

Regardless of the action and outcomes I predict we'll see the same results as tobacco consumers did - higher prices to cover payoffs. I guess it can only be called racketeering when you're not a lawyer...

One caution, if we may.

Don’t assume or suggest that all consumer activists are fraudulent.

There are a lot of good folks out there who have nothing but consumers’ best interests at heart…whether you agree with their approach and goals or not.

Sure, there are scam artists.

But guess what? There are supermarket executives and food manufacturers and even industry writers/pundits (gasp!) who are frauds as well.

On the use of the political operatives by the UFCW to fight Wal-Mart, MNB user Glenn Cantor observed:

Note to the UFCW; both Howard Dean and Wesley Clark lost soundly in the presidential election.

One would have to think that most of the American shopping population now knows that Wal-Mart products are made cheaply, overseas. They know, too, about the perceived substandard health benefits. And, the shopping public knows that the old, friendly local stores at which they shopped in the past are closing because they cannot compete with Wal-Mart. People are generally smarter than the perceived experts and media give them credit.

And still, Wal-Mart stores attract a majority of the American shopping public on a regular basis. All of their stores are busy and crowded. Anytime a new Wal-Mart opens after winning a battle against local opposition, it is busy and successful from the get-go.

This means that the battle, as it is currently being fought by the UFCW, is destined for failure. The only way to succeed is to convince the American shopping public that it is good for them to pay higher prices, consistently and regularly. That will only happen when the alternative, with the higher prices, offers a worthwhile, widely desired trade-off. Right now, it is not happening. (And as long as we have to pay $2.25 for a gallon of gas, it's not going to happen.)

On the subject of mad cow disease, one MNB user wrote:

You commented (regarding mad cow) that you don't think that consumers are more educated -- I think that that's exactly true. The consumers in this country are insulated quite well from news about BSE and CJD. Those of us who live and/or travel in the international arena, however, have seen headlines, read articles, and watched television programs about this disease. Go to BBC News online ( and type in one of the relevant terms...but be prepared for what you will see.

I will accept that yes, vCJD (the human variation) is very rare.

I will not accept, however, that there is an "acceptable risk" associated with eating beef. Like you, I don't believe for a second that there is only one cow in this country. The testing ratios are not statistically high enough to catch it -- and what's more frightening is the possibility of cows that have already entered the food chain who were not tested (to be fair, even before testing was begun). ANY risk is too high with this particular disease.

I sat next to a couple on a Virgin Atlantic flight to London – their son's fiancée' had recently died of vCJD. It was heartbreaking to hear them tell about how a sparkling, vibrant young woman (they had obviously adored her) within a year and a half withered and died. (The subject came up because it was early January, just after they found the Canadian cow in the Northwest, and it was on the headlines of the paper I was reading.)

It is fatal -- 100% of the time. It is a slow, excruciating death -- 100% of the time. The only salvation, they said, was that her mind was gone long before the worst of the physical decline began.

I cannot imagine watching a loved one die this way...and since I do not believe that the beef supply is really, truly safe, I will not serve my family beef. (Because of the testing and the general awareness, I've occasionally had beef in Europe, but haven't eaten American beef in a year and a half.) The upside is the amount of duck and lamb we've been eating...!

I'm sorry that the Beef Council will be angry with me...and pray that they never have to watch one of their own become a victim of vCJD.

Finally, we continue to get loads of email about our objections to wine in boxes and in screw-top bottles. Our favorite:

Slowly Slowly Slowly
You can crawl out of the dark ages.
Have you tried one of the best Pinots around???

Argyle from Oregon...

Oops.... Has a screw top.......
I guess I get to enjoy it all by myself....
KC's View: