Editorial: Food addiction? Where's the beef?

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Critics want marketers held responsible for two of America's national pastimes: the overeating that puts pounds on and the "diet" products and services that fail to take them off. Some of the current strategies in the food-and-fat wars stretch common sense, however.

The courts should reject litigation that accuses the three top U.S. burger chains and Yum Brands' fried-chicken specialist KFC Corp. of "addicting" unwary Americans. Other litigation attacks fast-food marketing aimed at kids for not telling moms and dads enough about what they probably already know: that overindulging in burgers and fries has weight and health consequences for kids (and adults).

While these suits are questionable, marketers and the media that carry marketers' sales messages must respond to what is a serious national public-health issue. They should be accountable to their customers, in the marketplace for starters. Many businesses are trying healthier products. McDonald's Corp. this year began offering brand-name healthier yogurt drinks with its Happy Meal and will soon offer fries cooked in healthier oil. Burger King Corp. last spring added a Veggie Burger.

Diet and health knowledge is spreading, just as knowledge about tobacco use and health has. When food buyers get smarter, even old favorites are at risk. (McDonald's is scrambling to maintain U.S. sales; Subway Restaurants prospers with a strategy that includes healthy/low-fat foods). Critics and regulators want more healthy food choices; consumers eventually will go where they get good-tasting ones.

If food marketing is evolving, the marketing of diet-aids is stuck in its huckster-like past. The Federal Trade Commission's report last week on 300 weight-loss ads alleged more than half carried claims likely to be false or unsubstantiated (some outlandishly "too good to be true"). The FTC asked how respectable media companies ever accepted the ads. Good question.

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