"The thought that someone can file a lawsuit based in part on a choice they have made regarding where to dine and what to eat is disturbing," Christianne Ricchi, board member of the National Restaurant Association, said Thursday at a hearing with the House Judiciary subcommittee on commercial law.
"I fear for the industry and the impact these lawsuits could have on the economy," said Ricchi, the owner of i Ricchi, an Italian restaurant in Washington.
To fend off lawyers' and consumers' claims that supersized portions and fast food are making them fat, the association and the food industry are lobbying Congress to pass a bill by Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., which would protect them from lawsuits. No similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.
Keller, who received $2,500 from the National Restaurant Association in the 2000 election year, argued that the lawsuits are frivolous and won't solve the obesity problem.
"Of course, this litigation won't make anyone skinnier, but it would make the lawyers' bank accounts fatter," Keller said.
In 2001, obesity became a concern because the surgeon general said that the disease was turning into an epidemic. About 60 percent of the nation's adult population and 13 percent of children are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Recently, consumers have begun suing fast food chains like McDonald's and Wendy's, arguing that the food has contributed to their obesity and diseases such as diabetes.
John F. Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University, told lawmakers at the hearing that if the lawsuits really are frivolous, then the restaurants shouldn't have to ask Congress for help.
"Note that the smoker lawsuits, the nonsmoker lawsuits, and the lawsuits by the states against the tobacco industry, all were initially called frivolous," Banzhaf told lawmakers at the hearing. "But they have all proven their worth and helped to make a significant dent in the public health problem of smoking."
Banzhaf, an anti-tobacco crusader, compared fast food restaurants to tobacco companies, saying that some of them are using deceptive advertising and need to be more open about the nutrition content of their food.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America disagreed with the comparison. Spokesman Gene Grabowski said in an interview that food companies are much different from tobacco businesses.
"The food industry offers 60,000 items in a grocery store today," he said. "There's a wide variety — low fat, no fat, there's an array of calories — so you can make a choice. You can't make that choice with a tobacco product."
Food companies worry that they too will face lawsuits. Last month, a California attorney sued Nabisco, claiming its Oreo cookies contained harmful unlabeled fats. Within days, the lawsuit was dropped.
Rep. Mel Watt, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, said after the hearing that while restaurant and food industries believe they should be protected from lawsuits, Congress should not interfere with people's right to sue them.
"For me, this is not about obesity," said Watt, of North Carolina. "I think we have to respect the court system.
"The courts do a lot of things I don't like," he said, "but I have had to work with that system."
In 2000 and 2002, Watt did not receive any contributions from the National Restaurant Association, according to The Center for Responsible Politics.