Fast food joints may soon get singled out by the U.S. health department head if they don't shape up and stop feeding the country's obesity problem.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said public pressure might do far more than lawsuits and legislation to curb the junk food explosion that costs the government $117 billion each year in obesity-related health care costs.
"I'm going to start giving out awards and singling out ones that are doing good and the ones that aren't," he told reporters at a food policy conference. "If I get in trouble, I get in trouble." Thompson specified PepsiCo Inc., Coca-Cola Co., McDonald's, Wendy's and Taco Bell as companies that could offer consumers healthier options and promote more-sensible diets.
Thompson made his remarks as lawyers were preparing to file new lawsuits that accuse McDonald's Corp., Burger King and other drive-through chains for the rising obesity rate in the United States. Thompson, who has recently lost 15 pounds by eating less rice, potatoes and bread, said he prefers government programs that offer cities and food companies incentives to promote healthier lifestyles.
At the conference, attorney John Banzhaf, whose 1970s crusades against the tobacco industry helped get cigarette commercials off the air, presented the National Restaurant Association with a notice of possible legal action against the industry. Banzhaf and other lawyers claim that food companies, just like cigarette producers in the past, are not properly warning consumers that their products may be addictive.
The National Restaurant Association, which represents the fast-food giants and some 870,000 other U.S. restaurants, has countered that those claims are frivolous. The first major obesity case, filed against McDonald's, was dismissed in January. At least two other cases have been dropped.
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