In a surprisingly quick and controversial judgement the food industry has been served the most dangerous curved ball in its long history.
The fast-food industry was first to feel the wrath of consumer power in 2004 but today’s judgement puts the entire food industry on the line to accurately label their foods, to include prominent health warnings (previously only seen on tobacco products) and to compensate those who have ‘suffered’ as a result of past ‘negligence’.
The $20 billion settlement slapped on Coca Cola, is considered by many analysts to be only the start of an avalanche of class action law suits for the food industry.
Our love affair with fat and sugar is nothing new. Fatty foods taste good and they’ve made us feel good for centuries. Food high in carbohydrates affects serotonin, known to lift your mood.
It is really ironic that, in a world where every day 25 000 people die of starvation, we should be so obsessed with obesity. The problem has been the vast increase in medical costs resulting from spiralling obesity in many first world countries, affecting more than half the population today. It was the increasing rate of obesity among the very young that finally prompted these class action law suits.
(Read the full story in the detailed Analysis/Synthesis section – for subscribers only)
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
“The more sweet foods we eat the more sugar we have in our blood, which is highly toxic and must be removed quickly. Therefore we produce more insulin to remove the glucose, which is far more than we need to power the body. What we don’t need gets converted and stored as fat. Eventually we run out of insulin and become diabetic. Once we become obese the risk of diabetes is 77 times higher.”
Patrick Holford, founder of London’s Institute of Optimum Nutrition
1999: Tobacco feels the pain
In a ground-breaking legal settlement, the US tobacco industry settles with consumers, promising to pay a total of US$206 billion, in annual part-payments until the year 2025 and an up-front payment of US$ 13 billion. This is in addition to the US$40 billion settlement already agreed with four separate states.
Additional conditions include changed labelling, the ban of ads at sports events, brands on promotional T-shirts and association with cartoon characters.
2003: Fat and sugar in the news
The negative effects of fat and sugar start becoming part of the public debate. A Fortune magazine cover shouts out: “Fat, the next tobacco”. It is realised that the effects of sugar include high blood pressure and higher levels of specific fats called triglycerites. New Scientist: “Sugar is the new fat” and claims that sugar can be as bad for your heart as saturated fat.
It is estimated by one researcher that more than 60% of Americans are obese. Europeans are somewhat leaner on average. There is a strong drive away from saturated fats (such as steak, butter, cream and chicken skin) by switching to olive oil and polyunsaturated fats (including marine fish oils). The sales of diet products becomes one of the fastest growing industry segments.
The Atkins diet grows in popularity, recommending high fat, high protein and low carbohydrate foods. On 8 April, Dr Robert Atkins (the originator of the revolutionary diet introduced back in 1972 – going against almost all current wisdom, his book becomes a consistent top seller for decades) dies quietly after a fall on his way to work. At this stage there are hundreds of franchised Atkins food lines in supermarkets across America. Later in the year, after an enforced autopsy, doctors state that he might have survived the fall but for his obesity!
There is an explosion of diabetes in many first world countries. Unhealthy diets, high in fats and sugar, are blamed.
McDonalds start salad meals. Burger King offers low carbo burgers (without the bun!) in response to demands from Atkins followers.
2004: Government enters the fray
In November 2003, the Austrian health service announces plans for a “fat tax”. Fat Austrians may have to pay larger health service contributions to cover the fact they are more likely to visit the doctors.
In February 2004, British government announces plans for a “fat tax” plan to tackle obesity. Dairy products such as full-fat milk, cheese and butter could be targeted with additional VAT, along with junk food and fizzy drinks. Cigarette-style health warnings could also be slapped on food and drinks in a bid to improve Britons’ health.
British ministers have become increasingly concerned about mounting rates of obesity, particularly among children. Heart disease has overtaken cancer as the country’s biggest killer.
2005: Fast food industry reshapes strategy
McDonalds and Burger King are running scared.
Fast Food upstart Kwik n’ Good is revolutionizing eating habits. The name is perhaps corny, but their food is getting rave reviews from both young and old – a first in the fast food industry. Kwik n’ Good has grown to more than 1000 outlets in the US and Europe and their 2006 plan calls for 10 000 new outlets world-wide. Their value proposition – low calorie meals containing no fat and little sugar and slow-release carbo.
2006: Class action suits target sugar and fat
Sugar takes centre stage with pressure groups after a continued explosive growth in the number of new diabetics.
Kwik n’ Good becomes the world’s most successful fast food enterprise. Accepted into schools, hospitals and universities in a way that McDonalds could only have dreamed about.
Amongst the growing obesity epidemic, a war about GM food labelling erupts between Europe (wants complete detailed labelling) and the USA (“let’s be reasonable”).
Class action lawyers start rubbing their hands as tests show conclusively that you can become addicted to junk food. The combination of fat and sugar is shown to cause changes in the brain that are similar to those from heroin addiction. Consumers are ready to say that they were never warned about these dangers. The first suits are aimed at fast food companies and food producers. With combined world revenues approaching US$ 1 trillion they are a ripe target. US companies represent seven of the world’s top ten and are obvious targets. Kraft Foods, General Foods, PepsiCo and Coca Cola are prized targets. Nestle, the world number one producer with more than 500 plants world-wide, and Unilever are tipped to be the first non-US targets.
2008: First Judgements
Coca Cola is the first company to be hit with a judgement. It was seen as an easy target due to the relatively simple case against a ‘pure sugar’ drink, even though it emerged from court papers that, ironically, sugar-free Diet Coke had become Coke’s biggest seller. In a judgement touted by the New York Times as ‘a bitter sugar pill’, Coca Cola is ordered to pay $20 billion dollars over the next decade in the USA alone. Half of this will go towards the estimated US$100 billion annual healthcare costs on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of obesity.
International law suits are still pending. The first ‘fat’ case seems likely to be McDonalds. This tort case will be based on their dominance of the US fast food market over the past decades and their overall impact on American eating habits. Their advertising history is coming under close scrutiny as is their marketing program into US schools during the 1980s.
2009: Product labelling gets graphic
Universal condemnation of sugar and fat hits new highs with pressure from consumer groups dominating government attempts to control the food situation.
Food labelling has become the norm through voluntary actions by producers to win consumer trust and retain market share.
Governments add their voice to the labelling debate by forcing labels to include dire warnings and graphic photos of the diseases that could result. Food labels are no longer a pretty sight.
2010: Technology provides some radical solutions
The first stem cell treatment for diabetes becomes available on the UK National Health and in private American hospitals.
Nano robots that will do a Roto Rooter job on your arteries, ridding them of harmful cholesterol build-up come out of clinical tirals in the USA and are likely to be available from general practitioners within the year. Tens of thousands of these nano rabots can be injected into your bloodstream with a single syringe. This will enable most poeple to be able to consume the unhealthiest of foods with little danger of implications considered as fatal for the previous hundred years.