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20/01/03 . To Letters Editor from Helen Steel . Guardian . UK  
Chewing over problem of fat - a reply  
To Letters Editor, Weekly Guardian - for publication / January 20th 2003  

In his letter attacking obese children for suing McDonald’s (Chewing over the problem of fat, Jan 16 - see below), John Birkbeck neglected to mention that he has worked as a nutritional advisor to McDonald’s. Perhaps this is why he is so keen to see them absolved of any responsibility for the effects of the products they promote and sell.

He asserts that customers should know better than to eat high fat food on a frequent basis, but completely ignores the role advertising plays in influencing food choices, particularly among children.

I was a defendant in a UK libel case brought by McDonald’s. In 1997 the High Court Judge trying the case ruled that McDonald’s advertising had pretended to a positive nutritional benefit which their food, (high in fat and salt etc) did not match, and that McDonald’s exploit children by using them, as more susceptible subjects of advertising, to pressurise their parents into going to McDonald's.

Giving evidence during the trial, McDonald’s Senior Vice President of marketing said part of the company's marketing strategy was to target heavy users to increase their frequency of visits, and he agreed the company could change people’s eating habits.

In the light of all this it is fairly easy to see the responsibility McDonald’s bear for their part in the increasing rates of obesity in the countries where they operate.

Helen Steel London

Note to letters editor:

1. An internet search revealed that John Birkbeck had worked as a nutritional advisor to McDonald’s. I then telephoned McDonald’s New Zealand, who confirmed this.

2. The exact quotes from the judgment are: “I do find that various of the First and Second Plaintiffs' advertisements, promotions and booklets have pretended to a positive nutritional benefit which McDonald's food, high in fat and saturated fat and animal products and

sodium, and at one time low in fibre, did not match.”

“the sting of the leaflet to the effect that the Plaintiffs exploit children by using them, as more susceptible subjects of advertising, to pressurise their parents into going to McDonald's is justified. It is true.”

These can be found in the ‘Judgments’ section at Judgment of McDonald’s Corporation & McDonald’s Restaurants vs Steel & Morris, 19th June 1997

The judgment is also available at

3. The evidence referred to, given by the Senior Vice President of Marketing, can also be found in the official court transcripts on 3/11/94 between page 42 and page 55 line 31

The original letter:

Guardian Weekly 16-22 January 2003 Letters

Chewing over problem of fat

Your article on obesity and the legal action against fast food companies makes depressing reading (Fat is becoming a weighty issue, January 2). It is yet another example of the attitude that if an adverse event occurs due to one's own stupidity, one immediately looks for someone else to blame: eg the preposterous outcome in the case against McDonald's over hot coffee. If the coffee hadn't been hot the customer would not have been slow to complain.

It is incorrect to compare the current epidemic of obesity to the effects of smoking on health. Smoking is an optional activity: eating is not. The ill effects of tobacco have been known for years, and anyone today who smokes should have no recourse to tobacco companies.

That obesity is due to overeating and underexercising has been known for centuries. Except in the case of extremely rare diseases, becoming obese is a voluntary act. The scientific management of obesity is much more complex than simply banning a few foods.

Hamburgers are excellent sources of several essential nutrients, and not all are rich in saturated fat or calories. Many invaluable foods would be rejected by most people if they did not have a little sugar added. One can only hope that the legal profession will resist simplistic actions.

Since there is abundant evidence that the epidemic of obesity will result in enormous escalation in healthcare costs for the consequent diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, a strong case could be made for taxing the obese so that such costs are not a burden on the rest of the community. After all, much of the justification for cigarette taxes lies in covering the costs of smoking-related disease and premature death.

A coordinated approach of carrot and stick will be needed to resolve this new plague, and will take years. It is crucial that ill-considered actions do not obscure what really needs to be done.

John Birkbeck Massey University, Auckland New Zealand  
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