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Why McDonald's Will Never Pay for Making Customers Fat -- At Least in the U.S.

Last week, nutrition advocates took glee in a legal ruling from Brazil, where a former McDonald's (MCD) store manager was awarded $17,500 for his claim that eating Big Macs and McNuggets on the job for over a dozen years caused him to put on 65 pounds. It's a landmark ruling, but McDonald's haters shouldn't get too excited, because the likelihood that anyone in the U.S. is ever going to get a similar payout is slim.

The Brazilian decision coincides with a ruling in a similar case in New York last week that went in McDonald's favor. In a lawsuit that's been kicking around the courts since 2002, lawyer Samuel Hirsch is suing McDonald's for making his teenage clients (now in their 20's) obese. A judge ruled against Hirsch's attempt to turn thousands of claims into a class action, explaining that cases linking fast food and childhood obesity are too distinct to be gathered in a single group lawsuit.

And that's the crux of the problem when it comes to suing food companies over obesity. Unlike third degree burns from hot spilled coffee, for which McDonald's was forced to cough up $640,000 to an Albuquerque woman (and which is the subject of a new documentary), obesity is a complex health problem with a variety of possible causes. Even if teenagers eat at McDonald's every day for lunch, it can always be argued that it was really the Pop-Tart's and Sunny D they had for breakfast or frozen pepperoni pizza and soda they scarfed at dinner, not to mention the lack of exercise, that made them fat.

The Brazilian judge apparently did not perceive the situation to be all that complex and agreed that it was, in fact, the fries and Egg McMuffins that caused the plaintiff, who hasn't been named, to pack on the pounds.

Besides the causality problem, the other issue with waging a U.S. legal battle over obesity is that it will run into our intractable belief in the virtues of personal responsibility, sentiments which run particularly deep when it comes to food. Hirsch's lawsuit never garnered much public support because very few Americans are going to feel sorry for people who decide to eat at McDonald's and then get fat.

The particular claims of the Brazilian manager -- that he was required to test the food because McDonald's sent regular mystery shoppers to check up on quality and that he was given free lunches -- still aren't likely to move the needle of public support. Unless McDonald's was actually force feeding the guy, Americans are likely to wonder why he couldn't have just taken one bite to test the food and thrown out the rest. Or why not just eat salads for lunch and not the more fattening stuff, the argument might go.

The picture only changes if there's compelling evidence about the addictiveness of fast food or processed food. Once it was discovered that cigarettes were impossibly hard to quit and that manufacturers knew it, things went downhill for tobacco companies. If there are similarly addictive ingredients or components in food people will start to feel duped and the personal responsibility argument goes right out the window. But so far hasn't happened.

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