A Food Fight Against McDonald's

  • Anyone who has ever walked past a McDonald's and smelled that delectable grease should know it's a house of gastronomic excess. No food establishment that leaves your fingers glistening and your clothes smelling like sizzled meat can be good for you. So it's tempting to scoff at the lawsuit heard in a Manhattan court last week on behalf of overweight New Yorkers who say McDonald's food made them fat. And scoff folks did — on chat shows, in the papers, even overseas. "Perhaps they should also take out a lawsuit against staff for saying 'Have a nice day' when the weather is bad," sniffed London's Express.

    The whole thing does seem ridiculous — until you meet the plaintiffs. They're kids, and part of being a kid is having a poor idea of what's good for you. Ashley Pelman, 14, Jazlyn Bradley, 19, and several other teenagers say in their suit that "as [a] result" of eating Happy Meals, McMuffins and Big Macs over the years, they "have become obese [and] developed diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure" and other problems. The young people claim that McDonald's didn't adequately warn them that its meals contained lots of fat, salt and sugar, even as the company pushed bigger, more sinful portions via "supersize" enticements. Their lawyer, Samuel Hirsch, says the chain's kid-focused ads and toy promotions portrayed McDonald's as child friendly, leading his clients to believe it was O.K. to eat there as often as they wished, sometimes two or three times a day. One of the clients, a 400-lb, 15-year-old boy, says he ate at McDonald's nearly every day, beginning at age 6; he now has diabetes.

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    McDonald's responds that it "is no more responsible for an individual's overall diet and lifestyle choices than any other food destination, whether it's your own kitchen, local restaurant or grocery store." In other words, you can't say McDonald's caused you to be fat unless the company force-fed you Quarter Pounders from birth. "Every responsible person understands what is in products such as hamburgers and fries, as well as the consequences to one's waistline, and potentially to one's health, of excessively eating those foods," McDonald's lawyers argued in a court brief.

    But while every responsible person may understand that, surely every child doesn't. Which raises the question of what the parents were doing when these kids were scarfing down all those burgers. Israel Bradley, father of Jazlyn, said in an affidavit that he "always believed McDonald's was healthy for my children." He says he never saw any information about ingredients at his local Mickey D's. Perhaps not. But any parent who has to look at a chart to know that French fries are fatty probably isn't serving macrobiotic health shakes at home. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Sweet may decide that a restaurant should bear no more responsibility than a parent — in which case this suit will be flame broiled.

    Still, some of the lawyers helping the plaintiffs previously won against tobacco companies. Cigarette makers ended up paying billions not so much because they produced an unhealthy product but since they concealed the full foulness of it. Sweet must now determine if McDonald's engaged in similarly "deceptive acts" by promoting its food to children without properly detailing the contents. If he rules against the company, your future Big Mac may be wrapped in a grease-smudged warning label.