The French fry is poised to replace the cigarette in the eye of a legal hurricane.
As childhood and adult obesity soars and as the fast food franchises relentlessly press ahead with their program of super-sizing burgers, colas and shakes, it won't be too long before law suits against McDonalds are filed.
Since obesity contributes to four of ten deaths in the country and overweight children as young as ten are dying from heart attacks, the pool of potential plaintiffs is substantial.
"My kid is obese and you, McDonald's, are to blame," will be the claim.
The statistics about obesity in the U.S. are well documented. Childhood obesity has doubled in the last 20 years; a quarter of American children are clinically obese.
Half of obese children over 6 and 75% of obese adolescents become obese adults. In short, kids are fat and getting fatter.
According to Dr. Kelly Brownell, an obesity expert at Yale University, we live in "a toxic food environment." From infancy on, we are continuously tempted to eat the wrong foods.
The risk to the fast food chains is that as more is learned about their marketing techniques, it becomes clear that their objective is to sell as much harmful food as possible to unsuspecting consumers. And the strategy of marketing products that kill leaves fast food companies vulnerable in much the same way as cigarette companies were.
McDonald's and its rivals have three corporate practices that leave it open to claims that they knowingly and purposely contributed to obesity: super-sizing, spiking foods with chemicals that have addictive properties and entering into contractual agreements with high-schools across the nation to sell their burgers in school cafeterias.
In her April 16th column, "Fighting the Lessons Schools Teach on Fat", New York Times personal health writer Jane Brody analyzed the differences in serving sizes between 1955 and 2001 portions of McDonald's fries and Coca-Cola.
In 1955, McDonald's offered one size of fries: a 2.3 oz. serving with 210 calories. In 2001, the 6.9 oz. super-size has 610 calories.
The 2001 version of Coca-Cola has also increased by a multiple of 3 over the 1955 version: 80 calories in the only 6.5 oz. cup offered versus 250 calories in today's most popular 20 oz. size.
When asked by Morley Safer on 60 Minutes about spiking food to enhance addiction, fast food expert Eric Schlosser said, "The designers of this food carefully calibrate the amount of fat, the amount of sugar and the amount of salt. The aim is to get you to buy it and eat it and want to eat it again."
In his best-selling expose, "Fast Food Nation", Schlosser reported on how McDonald French fries acquire their special taste.
Unfortunately, potatoes have nothing to do with it. Rather, the "secret" comes from the International Flavors and Fragrances Company.
IFF has developed an additive that creates a taste and aroma in french fries that make people want to eat more. Called "flavorists," these IFF researchers are a team of biologists, psychologists, physiologists and organic chemists in search of the right combination of chemicals to ensure consumer likeability.
You'll never know exactly what IFF has come up with since the Food and Drug Administration doesn't require flavor companies to disclose ingredients as long as they are GRAS (generally regarded as safe). Unquestionably, though, the food is spiked with additives that make you crave more.
Finally, the fast food companies have invaded the school cafeteria in a major league way. Accepting a lower profit margin to create brand loyalty, fast food companies market their products in nearly 30% of U.S. public high schools.
Taco Bell products are sold in over 4,500 schools. At least 20 school districts have their own Subway franchises and an additional 1,500 have Subway delivery contracts.
Fast food from McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Domino's are increasingly available in high-school cafeterias across the nation.
The best defense that the fast food companies could mount is that they offer healthy choices.
But as child obesity special Dr. Barry Shapiro says, "I challenge anyone to stand in line at a fast food place and find a child ordering a salad with the dressing on the side. Children are inundated with advertising about how wonderful fast food is, how convenient it is and how good it tastes."
Shapiro is right. The fast food companies don't spend $3 billion a year on television advertising to hawk salads.
Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.