A Washington physicians group that has repeatedly battled the dairy industry filed two lawsuits today in an Alexandria court to try to stop an advertising campaign that claims that consuming dairy products can help people lose weight.
The non-profit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine charges that the three main dairy industry trade groups and several food companies, including Kraft Foods, General Mills and Dannon, "are misleading consumers with deceptive advertising" that claims that consuming 24 ounces of fat-free or lowfat dairy per day can help the body burn fat and shed pounds.
The suits, filed in Alexandria Circuit Court, were filed on behalf of Catherine Holmes, 46, of Arlington, who said she gained weight while relying on the "false claims," according to the group. One suit seeks money damages and the other is a class-action suit seeking an injunction banning the widespread industry-funded TV and print ads.
The International Dairy Foods Association, one of the targets of the suits, denied the allegations and said the legal action was designed to promote "the animal rights agenda."
In the suit, the physicians group, which advocates a vegan diet, claims that most scientific evidence shows people will either gain weight or remain at the same weight when increasing dairy consumption.
"To stem declining sales and boost their bottom line, the dairy industry is duping overweight Americans into believing that milk and other dairy are the magic bullet to weight control," Dan Kinburn, the group's senior legal counsel, said in a statement. "We are serving notice with these lawsuits that we will not continue to let these false health claims go unchallenged."
The dairy industry defendants in the case are the International Dairy Foods Association, which is a trade group representing food manufacturers that use dairy products; the National Dairy Council and Dairy Management Inc. The food company defendants are General Mills, which makes Yoplait yogurt; Kraft Foods; Dannon Co.; Lifeway Foods, the maker of the yogurt-like beverage called kefir; and McNeil PPC, the makers of Lactaid.
Susan Ruland, a spokeswoman for the dairy foods association, denied the suits' allegations, saying "These are the same people who throw paint on people who wear fur. They've just gotten slicker in their approaches," according to the Reuters news agency.
Reuters quoted Ruland as saying the physicians group has no legitimate nutritional criticism and instead opposes the use of animal products.
The group has a history of battling the dairy industry. The lawsuits follow similar complaints filed earlier this year with the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration.
The physicians committee filing says the dairy industry is basing its weight-loss claims on two small-scale studies "using questionable methodology" led by University of Tennessee researcher Michael Zemel, whose research was partly funded by the dairy industry.
"Only the two studies led by Zemel have found that dairy contributes to both weight and fat loss when individuals are also restricting calories to lose weight," Amy Lanou, a senior nutrition scientist with the group, said in a statement. Lanou said that 35 studies have been conducted since 1989 on the relationship between dairy products and body weight. Thirty-one found no relation and two indicated that dairy products actually contributed to weight gain, she said. The other two were Zemel's studies.
The dairy industry is asserting in its ads that studies show that people will lose weight by consuming three servings of dairy a day, but only if they are already on a reduced-calorie regimen.