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Who's to blame for your waistline?

The in-depth report on Dateline NBC, August 18, 8 p.m.

In the face of a growing obesity epidemic with vast medical and financial implications for generations of Americans, several advocates, nutritionists, and lawyers are now working to take the fight from the food court to the court of law. They want to sue the companies that make and market some of America’s favorite foods in order to curb expanding waistlines. So, is food, as one lawyer says, the next tobacco?

In an upcoming report, “Food Fight,” airing on Friday, Aug. 18 (8:00 PM, ET/PT), “Dateline’s” Stone Phillips asks: are we overweight because we are not trying hard enough, or are we overweight because somehow the food and marketing industries have eroded our ability to just say no? Pitting personal responsibility against corporate responsibility, Phillips explores the subject from the courtroom, the supermarket, the drive-thru, and even the lab: looking at the latest developments in brain imaging science suggesting some of us may actually be addicted to fattening food.

But if “the hamburger made me do it” sounds like a big fat joke, the food industry isn’t laughing. In fact, they’re fighting back. And they’re changing. Included in the hour-long report are rare television interviews with one of McDonald’s top leaders, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of McDonald’s USA, Don Thompson, and Kraft’s Senior Vice President in charge of Health and Wellness, Lance Friedmann. Both companies are leaders in their fields and leaders in innovation. The industry candidly opens up about what can be done and what is being done. How best to convey calories in the Fast Food world? And what is the most responsible way to market food to kids?

When Phillips asks Kraft about its responsibility for the national epidemic, Friedmann’s answer is one that would have seemed unheard of coming from the industry just a few years ago, “Obesity and trying to address it, we believe, is a shared responsibility,” adding, “we think we can be part of the solution.” When Phillips brings up the controversial use of licensed cartoon spokes-characters in marketing food to young children, Kraft’s Friedmann replies, “this is probably the next frontier. We’re going to be looking at this.”

In a rare TV interview, McDonald’s Thompson speaks out about the initiatives taken by the Golden Arches to combat obesity. “I don’t think [our founder] had in his wildest dreams that today we’d be selling more than 300 million salads a year. I don’t think he would have thought we’d be selling apples, you know, 54 million pounds of apples in the U.S. alone.” In addition, Thompson addresses the famous 2002 lawsuit that is still pending, in which two girls from the Bronx, N.Y. sued the company for making them obese. When asked about McDonald’s responsibility in the face of obesity, Thompson answers, “It is not up to us to define what is a part of a person’s diet. However, we want to make sure that the choice is there.”