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Food Fight!

How should restaurateurs deal with the weighty problem of customers' obesity?

Holding restaurants liable for a customer's weight problem may seem like the equivalent of a Chicago baseball fan suing the Cubs for pain and suffering. But despite widespread ridicule, efforts to make fast-food companies responsible for obesity continue unabashed in federal court. Obesity lawsuits may be a glaring example of a tort system gone mad, but no one believed tobacco lawsuits would go anywhere, either. Food-industry critics say grounds for legal action reside in what they consider the industry's excessive lobbying of federal health officials. The pressure, critics say, has resulted in dietary guidelines that lean too much in favor of meat and dairy products.

While a federal judge threw out a lawsuit against McDonald's last January, plaintiff's attorney Samuel Hirsch amended the suit and refiled it within days. Fast-food chains remain Hirsch's chief focus, but industry advocates and legislators are acting to protect all food-service entrepreneurs from future fallout. Remedies in the works in the House and Senate would outlaw making food-service companies liable for consumer health.

On a broader front, industry associations are developing consumer education campaigns that emphasize a balanced diet and exercise as the best recourse for consumers who tip the scales. "We don't want to minimize that people are overweight or obese, but filing lawsuits is not the solution," says Steven C. Anderson, president of the National Restaurant Association.

Even though individual business owners are unlikely targets for legal action, many worry about the image obesity lawsuits imply for the industry as a whole and the financial burden of defending themselves in court. "We need to respond to this issue," says Xavier Teixido, owner of Harry's Savoy Grill in Wilmington, Delaware. "We don't want the thought to take hold that staying home might be better for your health than eating out." Countering that image can mean expanding menus to include more fruit and vegetable dishes and allowing for substitutions that replace fatty foods with low-calorie options.

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This article was originally published in the July 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Food Fight!.

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