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Consumer Reports

Congressman trying to protect fast-food industry from obesity lawsuits | (KRT) When U.S. Rep. Ric Keller falls off the diet wagon --_as he often does -- his demise is a lunch at Wendy's: triple cheeseburger, Great Biggie fries, Frosty.

The damage? A whopping 1,920 calories and more than 90 grams of fat.

You can practically hear his arteries moaning.

Keller doesn't apologize - except, perhaps, to wincing cardiologists. It is, the Florida Republican says, "a matter of personal responsibility." He knows there are healthier choices, and, after all, Wendy's isn't forcing the food down his gullet.

Keller not only takes the blame for his fast-food lust, he thinks everyone else should do likewise. Which is why he's trying to stop fast-food junkies from suing the industry that has been their fix.

His "Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act"_which faces a hearing before a House subcommittee in Washington Thursday_has ignited a debate about who is to blame for America's widening obesity epidemic, which has grown side-by-side with the popularity of fast food.

Does the industry, which lures kids with playgrounds, Happy Meals and movie tie-ins, share some responsibility? Does it try to obscure the ugly nutritional truth about its fare? Or does John Q. Scarf-Down just need to bite the bullet instead of the grease-burger?

It's not as simple as you might think. Some now claim certain fast-food ingredients_sugar, cheese and meat_may be addictive. And that means Big Fast Food, like Big Tobacco before it, could be ripe for salivating public-interest attorneys.

This weekend, in fact, they'll be attending a national conference on "legal approaches to the obesity epidemic"_a meeting that's being billed as the first annual.

"All of the studies I've seen say there are two things behind this current epidemic of obesity," says John Banzhaf, a professor of public-interest law at George Washington University and a leader in the effort to turn up the heat on fast food. "One is the fact that we get far less exercise than we have in the past. Second is the proliferation of fast-food restaurants with their ubiquitous advertising and super-size portions."

Already there have been several lawsuits against the industry, the first launched nearly a year ago when Caesar Barber, a 56-year-old New Yorker, sued McDonald's, Wendy's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King, saying their food made him fat and led to two heart attacks.

"I think all the food I ate from McDonald's and all the three other chains_with the calories, with the grease_was like a time bomb exploding in my arteries," Barber told reporters.

So was Barber really an "addict"? Couldn't he have just exercised a little self-control?

Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, cites evidence that eating sugar, chocolate, meat or cheese stimulates opiate receptors in the brain. The degree of impact, he says, depends on the individual, but women seem predisposed to sugar cravings, while men are more apt to fixate on meat and cheese.

When given a drug called naxolone_an opiate-blocker used in emergency rooms to treat heroin overdose_people seem to lose their desire to overindulge in such foods, Barnard says, although it doesn't affect their consumption of, say, broccoli or apples.

Other studies, at the University of Wisconsin and Princeton University, suggest that eating sugar- and fat-filled laden junk foods can trigger hormonal changes that make it more difficult to control eating.

"I think the idea that, oh, these lawsuits are foolish and it's just personal responsibility_that's just a knee-jerk reaction," Barnard says.

But the addiction theories are still young. And opponents aren't buying.

"That's a junk-science argument," Keller claims. "You know, I'm addicted to watching `The Bachelor' every Wednesday night. Can I sue them now?"

When Keller announced his bill in late January, he followed it up with a breakfast of Egg McMuffins, Chick-fil-A sandwiches and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

"I'm about 20 pounds away from being the ideal sponsor of this bill," he joked at the time. He has made no secret of his yo-yo battle of the bulge.

But some critics say it's the generous contributions he has accepted from the food and beverage industry that make Keller the ideal sponsor_a charge that he vigorously denies.

"They didn't ask me to do it," he says. "I just did it."

Specifically, Keller's bill would prohibit civil lawsuits against manufacturers, distributors and sellers of food and non-alcoholic beverages for "weight gain, obesity, or a health condition related to weight gain or obesity" as a result of long-term consumption.

In other words, says Mike Burita, spokesman for a group called the Center for Consumer Freedom, it would head off "ambulance-chasing on a grand scale." The group, funded largely by the food and beverage industry, will be testifying in support of Keller's bill.

The problem, Burita claims, is not so much the lure of the hamburger as the lure of the sofa. "It's the old energy-in, energy-out theory," he says. "And we're not doing the energy-out part."

Of course, for Americans to calculate the energy in, they've got to have the numbers. Any many critics say the fast-food industry is less-than-forthcoming about how unhealthy their food really is.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a recent survey showed that two-thirds of the nation's largest restaurant chains don't provide any nutritional information whatsoever. And of the one-third that do, it's often hard to find, hard to read or available only by Web site.

"People say, `Oh, it's so obvious. Everybody knows what's healthy and what's not,'" says Margo Wootan, the center's director of nutritional policy. "But it's not so obvious. How many people know that a sirloin steak has half the calories of a porterhouse? Or that, at a typical deli, the tuna-salad sandwich has 50 percent more calories and twice the saturated fat of roast beef with mustard? I have a Ph.D. in nutrition, and I wouldn't have guessed that."

Simply posting the nutritional data in an obvious place would satisfy Wendell Johnson. The 24-year-old Orlando high-tech worker, polishing off lunch at Burger King, scoffs at the lawsuits filed to date. But he does believe in full disclosure.

"As long as they do that, then if you decide to eat there until you're a porker, that's your business," he says. "People go overboard."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services