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Talk of the Nation - Interview

Location: Washington, DC

SHOW: Talk of the Nation (2:00 PM ET) - NPR

HEADLINE: Food industry's efforts to help curb obesity


NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

Today we're talking about healthier food and healthier eating with Professor Barry Popkin. He's with us from WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And we're also talking with Mark Cotter. He's the senior vice president of The Food Group. Joining us now from Capitol Hill is Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell.

Thanks for being with us, Senator McConnell.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Good afternoon.

NEARY: You're proposing a bill that would protect the food industry from liability claims that their products make people fat or obese. Why are you proposing that bill?

Sen. McCONNELL: Well, it is a particularly new and absurd trend in litigation which portrays America as a society of victims being done in, if you will, by someone else. And my legislation strictly deals with claims that someone else caused you to be obese or caused you to gain weight. It would not insulate food companies from any other kind of traditional litigation, but it would prevent litigation claiming that the seller, in effect, of food caused the purchaser to become obese or to gain weight.

NEARY: Do you think the government should be involved at all in the fight against obesity? Is this purely a personal problem to be dealt with by the individual?

Sen. McCONNELL: Oh, I do think that the government ought to certainly help educate the American public to, you know, the fact that we are apparently becoming more and more an overweight society and there are ways to deal with that, such as eating better and exercising and all of the things that need to be done. But I think America becoming a society of victims who try to blame someone else for our own choices is clearly not the way to go.

NEARY: Now your state, Kentucky, is home to Yum Brands, which is the owners of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Long John Silver's. Is this an effort to protect that business in your state?

Sen. McCONNELL: No. I mean, you know, there are plenty of businesses that would benefit by this. I always think of the candy bar people; the Hershey people would be an example of that. I think any seller of food would potentially be benefited only to the extent that they would be insulated against lawsuits that no one prior to the last year or so would have ever thought about bringing in the first place. You know, until recently it never occurred to anyone that it would be someone else's fault that I eat too much. And so this particularly absurd new trend in litigation needs to be stopped before it even starts.

NEARY: Can you just describe the legislation for us and tell when you're going to introduce it?

Sen. McCONNELL: It'll be introduced later this week, and it would essentially prohibit bringing any claim based on an alleged injury related to obesity or weight gain in a state or federal court against any lawful food manufacturer. So as you can see, it is limited to claims related to obesity or weight gain. It would not in any way insulate manufacturers or sellers from other kinds of traditional claims, such as selling food in violation of federal or state laws or breaching of contract or selling adulterated food. I mean, all of those kinds of claims would still be available. The only thing that would not be possible would be for a plaintiff in one of these cases to claim that the seller of food caused their obesity or weight gain problem.

NEARY: Do you have any sense at this point of how much support this would have in the Senate?

Sen. McCONNELL: I don't know yet, having not introduced the bill yet, but I think that the American people are likely to agree overwhelmingly that while this is a very, very significant problem in America, it is not the fault of the sellers of the food but rather the consumers of the food.

NEARY: Senator, thanks so much for joining us today.

Sen. McCONNELL: Thank you.

NEARY: Senator Mitch McConnell is a Republican from Kentucky, and he joined us from Capitol Hill.

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