The House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved legislation nicknamed the "cheeseburger bill" that would block lawsuits blaming the food industry for making people fat.
Approved on a bipartisan 276-139 vote, the bill came up one day after health officials announced that obesity was on the verge of surpassing tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death in the US.
The bill has backing from the White House and much of the food industry. "This issue is not about any one restaurant or any particular food, it's all about personal responsibility and individual decisions," Lisa Howard, a spokeswoman for McDonald's Corp, said.
The cheeseburger debate generated heated exchanges, with lawmakers using words rarely heard on the House floor, including "crap" and "foolish", to describe the bill or each other.
The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act would prevent what the bill calls frivolous lawsuits against makers, distributors or sellers of food and non-alcoholic beverages arising from obesity claims.
The bill's author, Republican representative Ric Keller of Florida, argued that such lawsuits are not only frivolous, but harmful to the US economy.
"The gist of this legislation is that there should be common sense in the food court, not blaming other people in the legal court"
Republican representative, Florida
"We're talking about protecting the single largest private-sector employer in the United States that provides 12mn jobs," Keller said from the floor of the House, as debate got under way.
"The gist of this legislation is that there should be common sense in the food court, not blaming other people in the legal court," Keller said.
Support for the bill was divided largely along party lines, with Democrats saying the bill is a gift to the food industry, and Republicans decrying obesity lawsuits as an abuse by money-grubbing trial lawyers.
"The judicial system is being used by industrious law firms and plaintiffs' lawyers who sue without repercussion," Ohio Republican Bob Ney said from the House floor. "These insane and crazy lawsuits are absolutely not the way."
Massachusetts Democrat James McGovern insisted, however, that the legislation is unnecessary because such suits are rarely allowed to proceed very far in the court system.
"All these insane, crazy lawsuits that people are referring to are getting dismissed," he said.
The first fast-food lawsuit in the US was filed in 2002 by an overweight New York man who blamed his frequent visits to McDonald's for his obesity and diabetes.
Since then there has been a deluge of similar litigation and growing concern by industry advocates that the pace of such actions could quicken.
Opponents of the bill said it absolves the food industry of responsibility for its role in one of the most serious health crisis facing the US.