CHARLOTTE (CBS CHARLOTTE) – The same lawyers who beat ‘Big Tobacco’ companies now have a new enemy: the food industry.
Attorney Don Barrett is the lawyer who battled tobacco companies for nearly a decade to admit they knew cigarettes are addictive, and to pay the medical costs of victims knowingly hurt by their actions.
He and his colleagues eventually forced a settlement that cost the industry more than $200 billion. The lawsuits made Mr. Barrett a very wealthy man. But he says it is not the potential for another big pay-out that is now making him target “big food”.
“I’m 68 years old, frankly I don’t need the cash, the law’s been good to me,” he explained to BBC Newsnight. “This is my job, but here we have an opportunity to really help people. We’re not saying the food industry is the same as the tobacco industry that kills 500,000 Americans a year, but we are saying there is an epidemic of obesity that is affecting the overall health of the American people.”
Mr Barrett is one of more than a dozen lawyers who has filed cases against some of the US food industry’s biggest players. He was also depicted in the 1999 Russell Crowe film, “The Insider,” taking on Big Tobacco companies.
For nearly a decade, US lawyers have pursued a variety of approaches to try to persuade fast food chains to produce healthier, more nutritious food, but these are being seen as some of the most aggressive, despite the simplicity of their approach.
Mr Barrett’s case against Big Food is that companies are misrepresenting their products, promoting them as “natural” or “healthy”, when in fact, he says, they are no such thing.
His mission is to make them stick to the letter of existing laws which, he says, regulators have been too weak to enforce. He says that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees food safety in the US, has merely been writing warning letters, which he thinks will not be enough.
What he himself is fighting for, he says, is people’s freedom to make a choice.
“Nobody’s trying to tell the American people what they have to eat or what they cannot eat, the American people can make those decisions for themselves,” Barrett told the BBC. “It’s all about free choice. To have free choice you have to have accurate information. That means Big Food, the food companies, have to start telling the truth about what’s in their product. The law requires it.”