Fastfood giant McDonald’s has been vindicated as federal judge Robert Sweet threw out the widely watched child obesity suit against it. Though encouraging, the victory is not definitive. The threat of mass litigation, comparable to that levelled against ‘Big Tobacco,’ is still knocking on the door. Sweet’s ruling itself leaves the door open for an appeal.

The suit, brought by the parents of four overweight teenagers, alleged that McDonald’s failed to properly disclose the ingredients of its food, which led to health problems including diabetes and obesity.

It was dismissed on the basis that the plaintiffs failed to show McDonald’s products involved any danger that was not common knowledge. The judge claimed a line must be drawn between personal responsibility and society’s responsibility to protect individuals from their own excesses. He also cited concerns that the case could bring forth a deluge of ‘Mclawsuits’.

However, the plaintiffs are free to appeal if they can show that McDonald’s altered its food during processing, thus creating an “entirely different and more dangerous food than one would expect” at home.

As the food industry celebrates, it is important to remember that dozens of early lawsuits against tobacco companies also failed. There is no reason to expect that future lawsuits against the fastfood industry will be as successful as those against tobacco companies, but the parallels remain real.

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the US. Approximately, 300,000 deaths a year are associated with being overweight or obese. Almost 61% of American adults are overweight. Among US adolescents, 14% are overweight – noteworthy since overweight children are at risk of remaining overweight into adulthood.

Medical complications connected with obesity are also becoming more serious and costly. As the socio-economic consequences of obesity become evident, Big Food remains on the line whether by taxation or litigation – both private and federal.

While the ruling may have averted an immediate overwhelming avalanche of copycat claims, in today’s culture of culpability and blame, legal attempts to force the industry to shoulder costs of the obesity epidemic are unlikely to subside.

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