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Kraft, General Mills, Others Sued Over Dairy Weight-Loss Claims

WASHINGTON -- Representatives from the nonprofit advocacy group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) said yesterday at a press conference that the organization has filed two separate lawsuits that same morning in Alexandria Circuit Court in Virginia against the dairy industry, including a class action on behalf of all Virginia residents, to stop what the PCRM categorized as "phony" claims linking dairy intake and weight loss. The class action targets Kraft; General Mills; Dannon; McNeill Nutritionals, LLC, a division of Johnson & Johnson and the maker of Lactaid, which offers a line of products for people unable to digest dairy foods; the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA); Dairy Management, Inc.; National Dairy Council; and Lifeway Foods, manufacturer of a cultured milk product called kefir.

A second suit was filed on behalf of plaintiff Catherine Holmes against IDFA; Dairy Management, Inc.; National Dairy Council; and Lifeway. Virginia resident Holmes, who alleges that she adopted a diet high in dairy products to shed a few pounds but actually ended up gaining weight, is seeking only $236 in damages, the cost of the dairy products she bought during that time.

Both suits charge that the defendants violated Virginia's consumer protection and false advertising acts. "We look forward to trial and to PCRM and Miss Holmes to prevail on all these claims," said the group's associate general counsel, Dan Kinburn, during the conference.

According to PCRM executive director and general counsel Mindy Kursban, the group's litigation marks the first time a lawsuit has been filed to challenge these claims. Kinburn explained that the USDA and the dairy checkoff program couldn't be sued, because of the sovereign immunity granted to all federal agencies. The current suits were possible, however, because the industry's claims were made independent of the USDA, said Kursban.

PCRM has earlier filed complaints against the dairy industry's weight-loss claims with the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration.

PCRM additionally presented experts to refute the dairy industry's weight-loss claims, which were described by the advocacy group as heavily motivated by the desire to increase sales, based on the evidence of a joint strategy meeting apparently involving CPG companies, government agencies, and trade groups, which PCRM obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. PCRM senior nutrition scientist Amy Joy Lanou gave an exhaustive account of human clinical trials indicating no clear connection between the ingestion of dairy and weight loss before concluding, "The vast majority of studies show that dairy products have no impact on weight or weight loss." Later on in the press conference, she left no room for doubt about the group's stance on dairy: "Our position is that milk is not a necessary food and shouldn't be marketed as such."

T. Colin Campbell, a professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University and director of the nationwide China Diet and Health Study, linked animal-based proteins such as casein, a protein found in cow's milk, with a host of maladies, including cancer, atherosclerois, type 1 diabetes, osteoporosis, lactose intolerance, teenage acne, migraine headaches, and cataracts. Campbell, who stressed that he had grown up on a dairy farm, lambasted the dairy industry in particular for becoming overly involved in both the research and policy arenas, a state of affairs he said "has gone far too far."

At the press conference, the group also spoke briefly about a counter-dairy advertising campaign it was launching as a "very strong consumer education tool." Kursban noted that the campaign would shortly appear in various national publications. PMRC senior public relations officer Howard White told Progressive Grocer that The New York Times was a possible venue for the ads.

In a prepared statement IDFA and the American Dairy Association/National Dairy Council noted: "We’ve worked with the USDA and leading nutrition experts to communicate to adults that eating three servings each day of milk, cheese, or yogurt can help in their weight-loss efforts when coupled with calorie restriction. This is not a 'dairy diet,' it’s a recommendation that people shouldn't cut out milk and dairy products when they're trying to lose weight." The trade groups added that they had not yet had the chance to review PCRM's complaint, but accused the group of "irresponsible tactics" and of receiving funds from animal-rights group PETA, viewed by many as extremists.

Kursban responded at the conference that the trade groups' reaction was a clear case of "attacking the messenger," and denied any funding by PETA.
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