PAUL HOLMES: Though met with much skepticism, lawsuits against McDonald's do have PR meat to them

Five years from now, every McDonald's burger will come wrapped in paper that carries a health warning from the Surgeon General.

Five years from now, every McDonald's burger will come wrapped in paper that carries a health warning from the Surgeon General.

Ten years from now, children will no longer be allowed to purchase fast food unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Those predictions present, from the food industry's point of view at least, worst-case scenarios. But the debate over obesity will certainly prompt some interesting challenges for food and beverage companies as the national health establishment, consumer activist groups, and lawyers turn up the heat on what many see as a national epidemic.

Much of the media coverage of this issue has focused on a handful of high-profile lawsuits, filed by individuals who blame McDonald's marketing (McDonald's is only the most tempting of several possible targets) for their weight and health problems. Plaintiffs' attorneys have sought to present fast food as the next tobacco, pointing to the massive judgments issued against Philip Morris and others in recent years, and anticipating similar payouts by deep-pocketed food producers.

The media has been rightly skeptical of these cases. First, food products are nowhere near as addictive as tobacco. That makes choosing to eat fast food rather than nuts and berries a matter of personal choice and personal responsibility. Second, there is no such thing as second-hand fat. A bad diet impacts only the individual involved. Finally, food is necessary for life, and the food establishment has been telling us for years that it's OK to eat red meat and potatoes as part of a balanced diet. Is McDonald's really responsible for ensuring that balance?

But if the lawsuits are likely to be successfully defended, the PR issues won't go away so easily. Food marketers will have to answer some difficult questions, particularly relating to the way they market their products to children, in some cases in schools. That's an issue tobacco marketers never had to confront.

It would be a mistake to wait until draconian regulatory measures are proposed to act on this issue, as the food industry recognized when it announced a campaign to emphasize the role exercise plays in the obesity epidemic. But while exercise is an important issue, the industry should not assume it can deflect attention from its own activities with this campaign.

This would be a good time for the industry to sit down and develop a voluntary code of ethics that deals with how fast food, candy, soda, and other products are marketed, particularly to children. There won't be another chance to get out ahead of this issue, and position food companies as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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