Food firms face a reputation fight to rival Big Tobacco

WASHINGTON: Media coverage of the congressional hearings on the Obesity Prevention and Treatment Act last week has prompted many big food companies to gear up for battle.

WASHINGTON: Media coverage of the congressional hearings on the Obesity Prevention and Treatment Act last week has prompted many big food companies to gear up for battle.

The act, which aims to improve US eating habits and calls for better product labeling, has led to criticism of food companies in the media and talk of "Big Food

as the new "Big Tobacco."

A New York Times story on May 20 looked at whether food companies could become targets of lawsuits. The story quoted John Banzhaf, a law professor and director of an antismoking organization that pioneered lawsuits against tobacco companies. "You may not be able to prove that somebody got fat because of a particular product,

he said, "but you can prove that the companies may have misrepresented, by omission, what is in their foods."

McDonald's PR department did not return calls, but Mike Burita, communications director at Consumer Freedom, a group backed by several large, unnamed restaurant operators, said, "Suing restaurants for making people fat is ridiculous. We are trying to get that information to the media.

The group gave interviews to ABC's World News Tonight last week, as did its opponents, an advocacy group called the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Consumer Freedom has already taken out a print ad in US News & World Report, and has booked a DC-area radio tour to get the message across.

The print ad asks people if they're too stupid to make their own food choices. The group is courting membership from other food firms.

Linda Eatherton, head of Ketchum's global food and nutrition practice, said food companies should not sit around and dismiss the debate, adding that some companies are keen on taking action as a result of the hearings.

"What food companies have not been able to do is act collectively,

said Eatherton. "Some clients are watching it closely, some want to do something more specific."

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