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Big Macs Can Make You Fat? No Kidding, a Judge Rules


federal judge in Manhattan dismissed a lawsuit yesterday that sought to hold the McDonald's Corporation liable for obesity and ill health in teenagers.

The suit, which had not reached trial, sought class-action status on behalf of potentially millions of children and teenagers who buy McDonald's hamburgers, French fries and other products. The suit accused the fast-food chain of deceiving consumers about the high levels of fat, sugar, salt and cholesterol in its products.

The judge, Robert W. Sweet of Federal District Court, said there was no evidence that McDonald's had concealed information about its ingredients, and he said it was widely known that fast food, and McDonald's products in particular, contained high levels of such potentially harmful ingredients.

"If a person knows or should know that eating copious orders of supersized McDonald's products is unhealthy and may result in weight gain," Judge Sweet wrote, "it is not the place of the law to protect them from their own excesses."

He added wryly: "Nobody is forced to eat at McDonald's. (Except, perhaps, parents of small children who desire McDonald's food, toy promotions or playgrounds, and demand their parents' accompaniment.)"

The judge observed that the case raised "challenging issues," and said it was apparently the first such suit to reach a definitive decision. He said the case had the potential to spawn thousands of similar suits, noting that Americans spend more than $110 billion a year on fast food.
But, he said, "This opinion is guided by the principle that legal consequences should not attach to the consumption of hamburgers and other fast-food fare unless consumers are unaware of the dangers of eating such food." He also dismissed claims that McDonald's foods were dangerous because they were addictive.
McDonald's praised the ruling. "Common sense has prevailed," the company said in a statement.

The company said it has consistently maintained that the lawsuit was frivolous. "Today's ruling confirms that fact," it said.

The suit was originally filed on behalf of two teenagers who said in affidavits last fall that they were regular McDonald's customers. Ashley Pelman, 14, of the Bronx, is 4-foot-10 and weighs 170 pounds. Jazlyn Bradley, 19, of Brooklyn, is 5-foot-6 and weighs 270 pounds.

Their lawyer, Samuel Hirsch, said the court had given the case a fair hearing. He added that he intended to file an amended suit in line with one aspect of the ruling, in which Judge Sweet suggested one avenue by which such a suit might be pursued.

The judge said that such a complaint could accuse McDonald's of altering its food during processing, thus creating an "entirely different — and more dangerous — food than one would expect" at home or in a restaurant other than McDonald's.

The judge noted, for example, that Chicken McNuggets, rather than being merely chicken fried in a pan, are what he called "a McFrankenstein creation of various elements not utilized by the home cook."

Such an argument, the judge added, "may establish that the dangers of McDonald's products were not commonly well-known, and thus that McDonald's had a duty toward its customers."

McDonald's argued that it was known that processing food can make it more harmful. The judge did not say how he might rule on such an allegation.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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