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You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back in the Water?

This country has always been about freedom. So, when the so-called obesity lawsuits surfaced a few years back, most were incensed. After all, Americans have the freedom to choose what we eat, how much we eat and where we eat.

In 2003, this industry cheered when a 2002 suit against McDonald's, for allegedlycontributing to the obesity of its customers, was dismissed. But, it appears the collective sigh of relief was short-lived.

A recent appeals court reversed the dismissal of the suit against McDonald's. Its decision opens the door for more suits of this nature and sends a clear message to everyone in foodservice: You better watch you're backs.

In a nutshell, the original case accused McDonald's of misleading promotions and failure to disclose harmful ingredients. The appeals court, when it reopened the case, said the suit is valid based on New York's deceptive trade practices laws. Furthermore, the appeals court ruled one does not have to prove personal injury.

Think about that point: Someone who has made a lifetime of bad eating choices, who does not exercise and has a family history of heart disease or the like, can file an obesity suit against your foodservice operation because of an allegedly misleading promotion or nutritional information claims.

The appellate court decision opens the door for suits that would obligate you to hand over records relating to your business practices. In other words, you'll be treated like the tobacco companies whose behind-the-scenes memos allegedly revealed that they knowingly increased nicotine levels to get their customers hooked.

I know what you're thinking: There's huge momentum on the national level to ban obesity lawsuits. In fact, nearly 15 states have passed laws. But a move to pass a national law never made it out of the Senate. You can bet the National Restaurant Association will do its best to breathe life back into that bill but, meanwhile, you better keep any promises you make to customers, particularly your kid customers.

McDonald's, for example, promised in 2003 to cut the use of trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils in its french fries. It recently settled a class-action suit for $8.5 million because it failed to live up to that promise.

McDonald's could not read the handwriting on the wall, but you better be more observant. The appeals court decision sets a bad precedent for more frivolous lawsuits against everyone in foodservice. If you think it can't be you, think again.

In an unrelated matter, the White House is currently conducting a search to replace its head chef, Walter Scheib. Reportedly, about 100 chefs are being considered for the job. Traditionally, the first lady makes the hiring decision, yet there has never been a female head White House chef. So, I urge you, Mrs. Bush, to hire a woman to run the White House kitchen. At a point in history when women are seriously being considered for President of the U.S., it's time to send a signal and break an old tradition.


Photography by: Roger Mastroianni

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