McDonald's Obesity Case Can't Proceed as Group Suit

McDonald’s Corp., the world’s largest restaurant chain, convinced a U.S. judge that consumers’ claims that its food contributed to childhood obesity were too distinct to be gathered in a single group lawsuit.

“Plaintiffs’ claims will necessitate extensive individualized inquiries,” Judge Donald Pogue in Manhattan said today in a 43-page decision in a lawsuit filed in 2002 by teenagers Ashley Pelman and Jazlen Bradley.

They accused McDonald’s of deceptively marketing its Chicken McNuggets, fish sandwiches, hamburgers and French fries from 1985 to 2002, harming their health and violating New York law.

Pogue, a U.S. Court of International Trade judge sitting by special designation in district court, said the consumers hadn’t shown that other people of a similar age suffered the same medical injuries after being exposed to the same marketing and eating the same food.

Lawyers for Pelman and Bradley estimated that the class size could number in the thousands, according to the ruling.

The decision comes a week after the restaurateur, based in the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook, Illinois, posted a 10 percent gain in third-quarter profit by luring customers with new menu items including fruit smoothies and frappes.

The landscape for the unhealthy-fast-food dispute has changed in the eight years since the New York lawsuit was filed.

New York City’s Board of Health in 2006 banned the use of trans fats in cooking oils, requiring the city’s 24,000 food establishments to eliminate it from their kitchens. At least a dozen other municipalities have adopted similar ordinances.

Healthier Alternatives

McDonald’s has added healthier alternatives to its children’s menu, including apples, apple juice and low-fat milk.

“We are extremely pleased with the court’s decision today,” Heidi Barker, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s, said in an e-mailed statement. “As we have maintained throughout these proceedings, it is unfair to blame McDonald’s for this complex societal problem.”

A federal appeals court in 2005 reversed a judge’s decision dismissing the case, which sought billions of dollars in damages. The appeals court ruled that the teens and their attorneys should be allowed to collect evidence to support their claims that McDonald’s misled consumers about cumulative effect of daily consumption.

Samuel Hirsch, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, didn’t immediately respond to a call and e-mail seeking comment on today’s decision.

Happy Meal Toys

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based nonprofit consumer advocacy group, sent McDonald’s a letter in June demanding that it stop including toys as premiums with its children’s Happy Meals.

“McDonald’s is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children,” Stephen Gardner, the center’s litigation director, said in a statement.

“McDonald’s use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children’s developmental immaturity -- all this to induce children to prefer foods that may harm their health,” Gardner said. “It’s a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction.”

McDonald’s Chief Executive Officer Jim Skinner, in a July 6 reply letter called the “stranger in the playground” characterization “an insult to every one of our franchisees and employees around the world.”

Nutrition Information

The company makes “comprehensive nutrition information” available to parents, Skinner said, adding that the public doesn’t support CSPI’s claims.

“Parents, in particular, strongly believe they have the right and responsibility to decide what’s best for their children, not CSPI,” the CEO said.

Jeff Cronin, a spokesman for the center, didn’t immediately reply to voice-mail and e-mail requests seeking comment today on the status of the group’s dispute with McDonald’s.

The case is Pelman v. McDonald’s Corp., 02-cv-07821, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew M. Harris in Chicago at aharris16@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David E. Rovella at drovella@bloomberg.net.

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