Four fastfood chains face a lawsuit from California consumer groups. The latest suit puts spotlight on the issue of truthful advertising labelling - not only for retailed food but also for foodservice.

It isn't the first attempt at appropriating responsibility America's health problems to food manufacturers and providers. Might the food industry soon follow the experience of the tobacco industry?

The increased complexity of food products has made truthful advertising increasingly difficult. This is especially true for nutraceutical products, which are not required to carry health warnings. For example, although consumption of soy protein lowers the risk of heart disease, overdosing can cause kidney stones.

This is closely connected with the extent of information manufacturers and retailers must disclose to consumers. McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and KFC are being sued for failure to disclose the nutritional values of their products - which resulted in the plaintiff contracting obesity, heart attack and diabetes.

Some of the cases can be attributed to uncertain research results. For example, a Swedish study disclosed in April that acrylamide, a potential carcinogen, can be found in starchy foods cooked at high temperatures such as French fries, bread and potato chips. The study was followed with similar announcements by Britain, Norway and Switzerland. But because this evidence is based on animal experiments, the danger of acrylamide for humans is still uncertain.

In the meantime, consumer groups want to force greater disclosure of the danger of consuming certain products - with some success outside of the US. In March 2002, the European Parliament passed a directive requiring supplement manufacturers to display information regarding risks and side-effects.

Although the US is unlikely to implement disclosure regulations soon, several foodservice retailers have begun to offer more information. Fastfood chain Ranch 1 began displaying the nutritional content of its products on napkins on 1 August, 2002, while Subway has been doing so for some time. While this move is mostly marketing-related, it points to the increased importance of food labelling for retailed food and for foodservice providers.

The suits against foodservice providers aim to lay the responsibility for America's diet-related epidemics on food manufacturers and foodservice providers. Will the food industry turn to become another tobacco industry?

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