Obesity Epidemic Hits California
Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images file
By Stone Phillips Anchor
Dateline NBC
updated 8/19/2006 2:39:42 AM ET 2006-08-19T06:39:42

Childhood obesity is a growing problem in this country—nearly one out of five American children is overweight. Convincing kids to eat right can be a battle. And some critics say the food industry has turned it into an unfair fight. In this Dateline report, the industry fights back. This airs Dateline Friday, Aug. 18, 8 p.m.

If you are a parent struggling to keep your kids from becoming obese, you might sometimes feel surrounded and outnumbered.

And there is cause for concern: today’s children are the first generation of Americans projected to have a shorter life span than their parents — with one out of three at risk of developing Type Two diabetes, a crippling disease once seen only in adults.

Who’s to blame? Most people say: we are. We choose what we eat. But a growing number of advocates, nutritionists, and lawyers are taking the struggle from the food court to the court of law. They want to sue the companies that make and market what’s on your plate. Is this just the latest example of a lawsuit-happy society shirking responsibility? Or are lawsuits a powerful weapon to combat our nation’s obesity epidemic?

In August 2002, two girls from the Bronx, New York, gobbling super-sized meals almost every day sued McDonald's for making them sick and obese.

The reaction was a big round of belly laughs.

We convened several groups of Americans whose weight puts them at the center of this crisis. The men and women we interviewed routinely eat at the McDonald’s sued by the Bronx girls.

Nathanial Martin: Nobody pushed them to go.

Norma Saunders: Nobody said, “Listen, if you don’t get that Big Mac now—you’re going to jail.”

Most consumers say what you eat is your choice. So it’s a matter of personal responsibility. But several academics and lawyers are arguing you’re far less free to choose what’s on your plate than you realize.

Video: The landscape of obesity in America

Phillips: Whose fault is that so many Americans are fat?

John Banzhaf: “Fault” is a hard word. But a large part of it is the restaurant industry and the fast food industry.

John Banzhaf is a law professor at George Washington University. He started thinking about obesity soon after the U.S. surgeon general called it “a national epidemic.” And it didn’t take long before Banzhaf came up with his cure.

Phillips: If you had your way, would junk food be illegal?

Banzhaf: No. I’m certainly not interested in prohibiting anyone. Any adult at least, from eating any kind of food they want.

But Banzhaf hopes lawsuits will force the fast food industry to disclose, on the menu board, just how fattening the food is. Restaurants don’t have to list calories like packaged food do, but Banzhaf says they should. He also wants it to be required that fast food outlets offer more nutritious alternatives. And he wants health warnings to greet you every time you pull up or walk in to order.

Banzhaf: Supposed you walked into McDonald's and saw a warning: “Eating fast food frequently can lead to obesity, which doubles your risk of a heart attack.”

Phillips: But where does that lead us? Doesn’t that lead to warnings about everything? Beware of that neck tie you’re wearing because you could pull it too tight and choke yourself?

Banzhaf: We can take any legal principle and carry it to an illogical extreme. But modern law recognizes that balanced against personal responsibility is corporate responsibility.

That was the idea behind anti-tobacco litigation. 30 years ago, Banzhaf was among the first to suggest suing cigarette-makers to curb smoking. Sure, smokers chose to smoke, but companies failed to warn them of just how addictive cigarettes could be. And that cost the industry billions and billions of dollars.

Phillips: Is junk food the next tobacco?

Banzhaf: I think junk food and perhaps even other foods are the next tobacco.

Banzhaf argues that the food and tobacco industries are alike in many ways. For decades, tobacco giants employed scientists, marketers and lobbyists to downplay the threat of smoking. Now, Banzhaf says, food companies are doing the same thing with obesity.

And, he says, both hide behind that catchphrase: “personal responsibility,” which he says is just a big fat red herring.

Banzhaf: It’s hard to believe that just over the last 20 years, which is when this epidemic started, that somehow we all lost personal responsibility. Because if we did, we’d have far more automobile accidents, far more accidental shootings and so on. We don’t see that.

So what did change? Not us, Banzhaf says, just everything around us.

More Americans work out of the house and longer hours, so we’ve become more dependent on meals we don’t cook ourselves. And in the past two decades, fast food companies have ramped up production and marketing to compete for our dining dollars: expanding outlets, hours, and portions. Fast food is now everywhere. All the time, cheap.

All our panelists says personal responsibility is key – but as locations and portion size multiply, they admit they feel bombarded and boxed in.

Sheila Martin: You can’t go anywhere without a fast food restaurant being right on the next corner.

Nathanial Martin: They’re targeting us. They’re targeting our children. They’re targeting our society.

That’s exactly what the lawsuit against McDonald’s argued. The two Bronx girls claimed the Golden Arches targeted them as kids, deceptively advertising the food as nutritious and never disclosing what’s really in it.

So what happened? In 2003, a judge ruled the teens failed to link their obesity directly to McDonald's. He threw the lawsuit out of court.

Joe Price, attorney: You cannot just pick one thing and say this is the root cause of this person’s obesity.

Minneapolis attorney Jo Price is studying the issue of obesity, preparing for future lawsuits. He’s an expert in this sort of product litigation—his firm defends the food industry.

Price says that unlike the direct link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, no one can prove that a certain food, or food chain, made them obese. Obesity, after all, is caused by many factors, not just food.

Joe Price: There are people who can go out and eat McDonald's five times a week and never put on a pound.  And as the judge in the McDonald’s case wrote, the law can’t protect people from “their own excesses.” People, if you ask them today, will tell you that they make the decision what they eat, and they make that decision for their children.

Even so, the judge in the McDonald’s case didn’t totally dismiss the idea that customers may be misled, opening the door for future lawsuits; tossing lawyers like Banzhaf—a legal McNugget.

Banzhaf: What he said was Chicken McNuggets are a McFrankenstein creation, the way they make it with all these weird ingredients. It has twice the fat and twice the calories of their cheeseburgers.

Phillips: But nobody’s forcing us to eat fast food or to eat so much of it.

Banzhaf: No. But if a fast food restaurant doesn’t tell you in an effective manner, what’s in the food... if people are confused— thinking, for example, the Chicken McNuggets, because they’re chicken, is healthier than the hamburgers— people can’t make those choices.

Banzhaf calls that consumer fraud. And a way to get to court.

Banzhaf: If I can go there and show that a company misrepresented a product, I can sue on that basis alone and never have to prove that a single person became obese.

McDonald’s changed the recipe of its Chicken Nuggets, replacing the ingredients listed by the judge with familiar and leaner, all-white meat.

Still, that law suit against the Golden Arches hasn’t gone away. Last year, an appellate court ruled that it could proceed after all. The food fight may just be getting started.

Once upon a time, food commercials targeted mom. Today, food marketing aimed directly at children is a $10 billion dollar industry. And two-thirds of Americans polled say it’s a major contributor to childhood obesity. 

Susan Linn, psychologist: Kids are bombarded with marketing from the moment they get up in the morning to the moment they go to bed at night.

Harvard psychologist Susan Linn calls it “brainwashing” and wants it to end. So she joined with concerned parents and advocacy groups to serve notice, that they intend to sue cereal-makers and children’s TV channels—for marketing unhealthy food to kids.

Linn: There’s no moral, ethical or social justification for marketing junk food to kids.  I mean it’s not good for them.

A typical child sees 40,000 commercials a year. More than half of them for fast food, candy, soft drinks, and sweetened breakfast cereals. 

But TV is just the beginning.

Linn: Pepsi and Coke, they both say that they do not market to children, I think under the age of 12. And there is a Pepsi car for kids as young as four.

Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor: Yeah, age four and up. (reading toy box)

Food is turned into toys  —  or attached to toys —  or just squirts out like a toy like the latest ketchup bottles.

Phillips: The food plate and the toy shelf are starting to look a lot alike?

Linn: It’s a merger, yes.

And then there’s the Internet.

A growing number of popular online gaming sites are owned or sponsored by the food industry.

Lauren, panelist: The Nabisco site. My little brother’s 13 and could live on that Web site.  Like you just play. And it’s like all the different snack foods are all fun games.

Children spend hours on these sites, exposed to what critics slam as stealth advertising, slipping past parents to reach the kids. 

Linn: And, you know, what the industry does that is so distressing is that they really prey on parents’ best intentions.

Like encouraging kids to read, or learn math.

Linn: (Holding up a Cheerios book) And if you look at the cover, the cover looks just like a box of cereal. The M&Ms book looks just like a box of M&Ms.

Companies say it helps kids learn. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But critics argue companies actually make a concerted effort not to help parents, but pit kids against parents.

Linn: In 1998, this company called Western Media International did a study on nagging. It was not a study to help parents cope with nagging. It was a study to help corporations help children nag more effectively.

Phillips: How many of you have heard the term nag factor? Or pester power? These are actual marketing terms, for targeting children with advertising.

Ken Robinson, father: Now I will break down quicker than my wife. So what happens, they’d rather ride or hang with me.

Kenbria Robinson: Yeah.

Ken Robinson: I’m guilty.

And many parents say the ultimate battleground is point-of-sale. Beware: the gauntlet of the cereal aisle!

There are a lot of familiar faces on cereal boxes: Shrek, Nemo, Batman, Dora, Woody from Toy Story, Barbie, SpongeBob Square Pants.

Madison Avenue calls them spokescharacters. Their licensing has become an enormous business.

We discovered the enormous swaying powers of spokescharacters when we sent NBC’s Hoda Kotb to a pre-school in New Rochelle, New York. A consultant in child education helped us devise a little game.

First, we asked three and four year olds to choose between a cupcake with the American flag and one with a familiar cartoon character. Almost all the kids picked a character over the red white and blue.

So we upped the ante and went for the battle parents lose all the time—a fattening dessert versus fruit. We asked these pre-schoolers to choose between a cupcake and a banana. This time, we recruited Scooby and Shrek to pitch the fruit. 

Most went with what Shrek and company seemed to endorse. So finally, to see just how far these characters could sway kids,  we asked: what would they rather have for breakfast? A banana or... a rock? We decorated the rock this character stickers this time.

Video: The picking game

It seemed pretty clear companies can count on Scooby-Do when they’ve got some work to do. An overwhelming majority went straight for the rock.

Phillips: We grew up with Tony the Tiger.

Linn: We did.

Phillips: And Captain Crunch and Sugar Bear. Now it’s Elmo or now it’s Shrek. Why is it so different?

Linn: It’s changed in volume and intensity and sophistication. That’s what’s different.

It’s not just advocates saying this. A recent year-long study by the National Institute of Medicine concluded today’s food advertising to children influences kids to make poor diet choices.

In the face of mounting criticism, food makers and marketers are responding. Food companies are reviewing their policies. And advertisers have asked the industry’s self-monitoring board to come up with clear guidelines about how to market snack foods and sweets to kids.

Still, critics point out that the ad industry’s review board has no enforcement power.

Phillips: But isn’t the choice of what to buy and feed kids up to parents ultimately?

Linn: It’s easy to blame parents. It’s not a level playing field. I mean how can one family take on, a ten to 12 billion dollar industry that’s food marketing to kids? How can they do it?

Phillips: By saying no. By doing what they ought to do as parents.

Linn: It’s hard to keep saying no over and over and over. It’s hard to be a parent. Why are we letting food companies make it that much more difficult? Especially when there’s so much at stake I mean the health of our children.

You can sum-up this food fight in one question: are we fat because we’re not trying hard enough to eat well or because somehow the food industry has eroded our ability to just say no?

Back in the 90s, lawyers suing cigarette-makers clinched their case by proving smokers found it hard to quit not for lack of will, but because nicotine was addictive.

Now, some of the same lawyers are pointing to similar, preliminary but tantalizing findings about your burgers and fries.

From the days of “reefer madness,” that old anti-drug movie, the word “addiction” has conjured images of out-of-control behavior. But today, cutting edge science is shedding new light on addiction and its connection to chemical changes in the brain.   If those changes can lead to compulsive behavior, some scientists wonder if  fatty foods and drugs just might have more in common than you think.

Dr. William Jacobs:  We’re very early in the game when it comes to addiction to food. The evidence is beginning to line up that there are so many similarities that I think we’re going to see that there are patients who are addicted to food.

Dr. William Jacobs studies addiction at the University of Florida, and has testified against cigarette makers in past tobacco cases.

He points to brain images that indicate activity in our brain’s reward and pleasure centers.

Dr. Jacobs: What that scans tells us is that the brain is responding to food in a nearly identical manner as it is responding to cocaine in the patients who met the criteria for food addiction.

Scanning people’s brains while making them sniff food looked like an odd experiment, but scientists at the prestigious Brookhaven National Lab are finding that just smelling and seeing certain foods, can often trigger a chemical excitement in the brains of over-eaters, making them compulsively want it.

And it seems our brain gets most excited by the things that cause us so many problems: sugar, salt, and fat.

Scientists warn our brain chemistry may actually change as we eat these foods, causing us to crave them even more.

Dr. Jacobs: If as a child I eat very sweet, pleasurable food, instead of my vegetables that my mother wants me to eat, I may be setting myself up for brain-changes that may be irreversible.

As preliminary as much of this science is, it’s all potential ammunition for lawyers like John Banzhaf.

Banzhaf: Fast food companies fail to tell people that there is now sufficient evidence that eating fatting foods can cause addictive changes in the body.

So do chocoholics and junk food junkies really exist? Science may be leaning that way, but the food industry says no. You have to eat to survive. You want to eat because it tastes good.

Joe McMenamin: Food is not an addicting substance. Food is not morphine. And the solution for the obesity problem is not litigation.

Joe McMenamin is a lawyer and a medical doctor in Richmond, Virginia. His firm represents food companies, so he’s studying the issue of food addiction. He’s concluded that calling food “addictive” is speculative junk science.

Dr. McMenamin: The behaviors of those who overeat simply don’t resemble the behaviors of those who truly addicted. In those who are addicted, we see altered mental status. We see abrupt and often impulsive behavior dangerous to the individual himself or others.  We see withdrawal, when one is denied access to his drug of choice. Foods don’t do that.

So, how does this chemical excitement in our brain influence our decision-making as we pull into that drive-thru? If there is such a thing as food addiction, are some foods more addictive than others? The scientists we spoke to said a lot more needs to be understood before any of them would feel comfortable calling food “addictive” as experts on the witness stand.  Stay tuned. 

John Banzhaf: My colleagues and I are now planning lots more fat lawsuits.

As these threats of suing the food industry grow louder, the food industry is fighting back, launching an intensive campaign to portray lawyers like John Banzhaf as ambulance chasers.

Companies argue these lawsuits are frivolous and unnecessary. But just in case, in conferences, attorneys are gearing up to defend the industry.

Attorney Joe Price says lawyers like John Banzhaf may claim fast food is the next tobacco, but it really isn’t.

Joe Price, lawyer: A moderate amount of smoking is bad for you. A moderate amount of eating is what we all should be doing. 

And big food is not about to repeat the mistakes of big tobacco. Instead of digging in its heels, many in the food industry are embracing their critics’ ideas.

Companies are voluntarily changing their products and marketing. And perhaps no company has been more aggressive about changing than the nation’s largest food company: Kraft.

At Kraft’s company store at its headquarters in Northfield, Illinois, I walked the aisles with Lance Friedmann, Kraft’s senior vice president in charge of global health and wellness.

Over the past four years, the company known for Cheez Whiz, Kool Aid, and Oreos, says it has cut fat out of over 200 products, trimming over 30 billion calories, including a sizeable bite in one of my favorites.

Stone Phillips, Dateline: This is the one I like right here. Honey Maid low fat graham crackers. Now, this—this hats off to you.

Lance Friedmann: Thank you. You know, people love to get the favorites they’ve had for years in a healthier form.

Phillips: Tastes great with milk.

Friedmann: Just like—the way you like it right? 

But tinkering with the classics of America’s cupboard has proven anything but easy. Consider the case of the Oreo.  Born in 1912, the best-selling cookie of the 20th century came under attack in 2003, a California lawyer sued Kraft demanding the company stop selling the cookie to children, because it contained transfat, an unhealthy substance tied to high cholesterol and risk of heart attack.

Immediately, Kraft announced it would remove the transfat. The lawsuit was dropped. But Kraft’s delicate work had just begun.

Phillips: Huge brand for you, the Oreo cookie.

Friedmann: Yes.

Phillips: Was there reluctance to tamper with a recipe that had been so successful and the ingredients?

Friedmann: When we made our announcement in the middle of 2003 that we were going to undertake a broad range of new initiatives in health and wellness, we got a lot of calls from consumers to our 800 number. And there were two messages they sent. The first one was typically, “We’re glad you’re doing this.” And the second message was, “Don’t mess with the taste of my Oreo.”

The company says it has spent over a hundred thousand hours of research to get transfat out of products.  And the new tranfat-free Oreo is now available on store shelves.

Informal taste tests say it tastes the same... tastes like an Oreo.

Last year, Kraft took another bold step, confronting the controversial issue of advertising to children.

The people behind Dunkables, Lunchables, and Scooby-Do macaroni-n-cheese pulled all TV and print ads geared towards kids, unless the products meet the company’s “sensible solutions” standards—a self-imposed set of health criteria.

Phillips: We’re talking about overall about ten percent of the products that that Kraft makes.

Friedmann: That’s right. Close to $3 billion in sales will no longer be advertised to kids 6 to 11.

Kraft says all these initiatives are market-driven. It’s what people want. But some say the company may be so diligent in part because Kraft’s majority owner—Altria—is also the makers of Phillip Morris cigarettes and they’ve been through this before.

Phillips: Tobacco companies have paid our billions of dollars as a result of anti-smoking lawsuits. Has the corporate experience in the tobacco wars influenced its thinking when it comes to the food front? 

Friedmann: You know, we’re doing this for two reasons. One, because it’s right for consumers. And two, because it’s right for our business.

With these changes, Kraft is hoping to set an example, showing that corporate responsibility can come without litigation.

Phillips: Who’s ultimately responsible?

Friedmann: Obesity and trying to address it, we believe, is a shared responsibility.

Phillips: I mean I guess inherent in that is at least some acknowledgement that foods have not been as healthy as they could be or should be?

Friedmann: We’re trying to change the products we make and how we market them.  And we think we can be part of the solution. We can be part of that effort.

Phillips: Can the industry police itself?

Friedmann: I would say judge us by our actions.

Judgement has been favorable. But not completely. Critics point out the company still targets kids, much younger than 11, bombarding them in stores with cartoon spokescharacters.

Phillips: Clifford the dog and Dora the Explorer. I mean, this is clearly aimed at very young children. I mean, who’s watching Clifford and who’s watching Dora?

Friedman: We know that there are concerns that people have about this kind of packaging and licensing program. We’re going to continue to look at that.

Phillips: We’re not seeing Dora the Explorer on packages of spinach—

Friedman: again we’re very interested on continuing a dialogue.

Phillips: So clearly you’re promoting the less healthy end of the portfolio..

Friedman: Well, one of the actually one of the things that we intend to do as part of our over-all effort in kids marketing is to introduce new products that meet our Sensible Solution standards. Those may carry the some of the licensed characters as well.

Phillips: I hear what the company line is, but I’m driving at is it’s just not the way to market food.

Friedman: Well, the way to market food is what we’re trying to do with our TV initiative first, and then our Web sites, And this is probably the next frontier. We’re going to be looking at this.

Phillips: So maybe its goodbye Sponge Bob Square Pants?

No response to that. But Kraft has decided not to renew it’s licensing agreement with Dora or Clifford.  

Still, the food industry doing away with cartoon spokescharacters altogether...  may be a job for Superman.

Stone Phillips: When somebody says eating at McDonald's made me fat, what do you say?

Don Thompson, Chief operating officer, McDonald's USA: I say, “I eat at McDonald's quite often, and I don’t consider myself to be the same thing.” However, having said that, you know, I couldn’t speak to why a person would say that. As McDonald's, we’re not the cause of obesity.

Don Thompson is the chief operating officer of McDonald’s USA. He helps decide what 26 million U.S. customers eat every day.

We met for a rare interview to discuss obesity, responsibility, and that McDonald's-made-me-fat lawsuit.

Phillips: This lawsuit was thrown out twice. It’s now been reinstated. Were you surprised?

Don Thompson: Very much surprised. But we’re very hopeful it’ll be thrown out again.

In 2002 two obese girls sued the fast food giant because they said they couldn’t put those burgers down.

Thompson: The first time I heard the information about the lawsuit, honestly, I thought it was hoax.  I really did.  And as it move forward and, and we heard more about it, I just got to a point where I really felt like there was, there was someone was deferring their responsibility and abdicating the responsibility personally.

Phillips: But do companies like McDonald's bear some responsibility at a time when—obesity is a major problem in this country?

Thompson: What level of responsibility we do have is to provide menu choice. It is not up to us to define what is a part of a person’s diet. However, we wanna make sure that the choice is there.

So McDonald’s is now offering more chicken entrees, salads as a meal, water in place of soda, and these fruit plates instead of apple pie. Supersizing is gone, as is the old formula for Chicken McNuggets: leaner all-white meat replacing what a judge once called: “a McFrankenstein creation.”

Phillips: You changed your Chicken McNuggets.

Thompson: Yes, we did. Children love the Chicken McNuggets.  We also know that moms are very concerned about and want their children to have the absolute healthiest thing that they can possibly have.  And so one of the things we wanted to do was to show moms we hear the concerns.  We’re listening and learning.  And we made a switch in our nuggets to all white meat.

Phillips: Was any of that change related to the lawsuit?

Thompson: No—none of the changes we made with our Chicken Nuggets was related to a lawsuit.

McDonald's says it’s constantly trying out new products, new options, and new initiatives.

Cathy Kapica, McDonald's head nutritionist: We’re not just about burgers and fries anymore. We’re not your mother’s McDonald's.

Cathy Kapica was McDonald's head nutritionist. We met at a suburban Chicago McDonald's.

Phillips: Are burgers and fries smart eating?

Kapica: Burgers and fries can be part of a healthy eating style.

Phillips: Can I eat it every day?

Kapica: Depending upon, if you’re active enough. You can eat at McDonald’s every day. In fact, many of us who work at our corporate headquarters—our company cafeteria is a McDonald’s. And many of us eat there every day. 

Phillips: But, are you eating hamburgers every day?

Kapica: Well, the thing is, is—dietary guidelines suggest, variety, moderation, and balance.

Phillips: So you’re saying you can come every day. Just mix it up.

Kapica: Right.

During her years at McDonald's, Kapica helped add several nutritional choices to the McDonald's menu board. None perhaps more successful than these small packages.

Phillips: Apple dippers.

Kapica: You will love them.

Phillips: This is very good—this is moist and delicious.

Kapica: The apples are actually great.

Phillips: Well, tastes good. Tastes good.

Apple dippers replacing fries in kids’ happy meals have made McDonald's the world’s largest provider of apples to children. But there’s a catch.

Phillips: All right, let’s have the caramel dipping sauce here. The ingredients are corn syrup, sweetened condensed whole milk, high fructose corn syrup—a lot of sugar in this. How healthy is this?

Kapica: It provides energy. Not a lot of other nutrients. But once again, if that’s gonna help your child eat more apples, and it’s fun. It’s a treat. 

Phillips: Better than French fries.

Kapica: You know, if you’re looking to cut down on calories for your child this is a better choice because it is lower in calories. If you’re looking to try and get your child to eat more fruit, this will help him do it.

Phillips: Are you testing other fruit and veggie products?

Kapica: Yes. We’ve tested dozens of vegetables with children. They liked none of them. But we’re still working. We’re very committed. But I think one of our bigger barriers is parental perception of vegetables at McDonald’s. Moms have told us, “I’m not gonna come to McDonald’s for vegetables.”

The overweight parents and kids we talked to echoed that.

Phillips: Some of these fast food restaurants say that they are now offering healthier items on the menu. Are you buying those items?

Panelist: You’re going there for the fries, what they’re known for, the fries. So, that’s what you’re going for.

Katie, panelist: If I went to McDonald’s and I had to choose between a hamburger and a salad, I would pick the hamburger.

Lauren: That’s what you know. That’s what you’ve grown up doing.

Katie: Yeah, that’s what I know. That’s what I eat.

Phillips: Your critics say adding healthier choices is part of it. But you ought to either improve or replace the more fattening items on the menu.

Thompson: I don’t think that I would wanna tell someone who comes into McDonald's for a Big Mac, “No you can’t have a Big Mac, because we took it off, because of our critics.”

Phillips: But what if you customers are making terrible choices? What if they’re choosing to come in and eat burgers and fries way too often?

Thompson: You know as McDonald's, our role and intent is not to say, “You can or cannot have this.” But what we have taken a leadership role in is to provide nutritional information and trying to get that awareness level up, about balanced and active lifestyles.

In its marketing, McDonald's does stress balance and physical activity. The company’s most famous icon traded his clown-shoes for running shoes.

Critics say if McDonald’s really wanted to help people stay fit—the company would alert customers to the potential dangers of some of its more fattening items.

Phillips: One of your staunch critics, Law Professor Banzhaf, says that there should be warning signs on your doors that fattening foods can lead to heart disease and diabetes.  What do you think?

Thompson: Well I wonder where we stop? At what point do you put labels on grocery stores, do you hang those labels over the meat sections, do you hang the labels down cereal aisles?

Perhaps a better idea, say nutritionists, is to require a calorie count on the menu board, so customers can see how fattening an item is,  at the moment they decide what to buy.

Over the years, McDonald's has put nutritional information in various places, from the web to back of tray-liners. This year, the food giant decided to push the envelope or the wrapper, and display the calorie count on your order’s packaging. But it’s still after the purchase, not at the point-of-sale.

Neil Martin: A lotta good it does after you’ve already purchased your meal to see what’s actually in there.

Phillips: That’s not when you need the information?

Martin: Right.

Phillips: I mean, you need that information when you’re making your selections. Right?

This is a touchy topic in the industry. When the restaurant chain “Ruby Tuesday” put a calorie count on its menu, sales dropped. The calorie count was largely abandoned. 

But the people who invented the Big Mac, perfected the drive-thru, and introduced supersizing say they are committed to change.

Phillips: You know years ago, Ray Kroc, your founder, was asked what products McDonald’s would be selling in the year 2000. He said he didn’t know, just that you’d be selling more of them than anybody else.

Thompson: I don’t think Ray had in his wildest dreams that today we’d be selling more than 300 million salads a year. You know I don’t think he would have thought we’d be selling apples—you know 54 million pounds of apples in the US alone.

Phillips: Can good nutrition and good business go hand in hand in the fast food world?

Thompson: I absolutely believe they can.

And while McDonald's wants to sell all the burgers and fries he can, the COO’s advice to us:

Thompson: I do believe in moderation.

Phillips: Too much of anything is a problem.

Thompson: Too much of anything can be a problem.

Phillips: Even McDonald's French fries?

Thompson: Oh. I love McDonald's French fries, so you know what, I’ll walk a little further—I’ll exercise a little harder, and I’ll run around with my kids a little more.

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