This group is fighting the "nannies" trying to take meat off Americans' plates.

Should consumers be allowed to have a choice in whether to have a steak, eat a hamburger, drink coffee or drive an SUV?

"Yes," say the 30,000 restaurant and tavern owners who together comprise the Guest Choice Network (GCN). The group uses education, training and public and political outreach to thwart special interest groups - or "nannies," as GCN calls them - that use junk science in an attempt to legislate against or socially smear what they view as unwanted consumer behavior or trends.

"We're fighting against the activists' war on consumer choice," says John Doyle, director of the three-year-old GCN. "They try to shift public opinion against socially acceptable products and activities... in their efforts to protect us from ourselves."

GCN's main weapons in its battle to preserve freedom of choice are the group's monthly newsletter to media and consumers and its Web site (www.guestchoice.com). Using these means, GCN provides their audiences with the correct scientific data that counters activist propaganda. From there, it's up to consumers to make up their minds on food and lifestyle choices, Doyle adds.

Probably GCN's most successful media relations ploy is its annual "Nanny Awards." (See sidebar.) The distinctions are released annually to media and cite "food cops, health care enforcers, vegetarian activists, smoke police, meddling bureaucrats and self-appointed arbiters of lifestyle choices who know what's best for you," says Doyle.

The beef industry is often a prime target of these nannies, he says.

"There are four public, high-profile attacks on the beef industry right now," Doyle says. "There is the anti-fat campaign, dioxin campaign, anti-antibiotics campaign and the mad cow disease fear. Someone has pulled the trigger on a public relations campaign, and the main objective is to create fear in beef consumers."

That fear will then in turn decrease beef consumption, the "nannies" hope, he says.

"Say you're walking down the street one day and you hear an ad that says 'eating meat causes cancer,' " Doyle says. "Are you going to stop eating meat? No. But the next time you eat a hamburger, you're going to think twice before you take a bite."

Another organization that has denounced the beef industry in the past is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). According to CSPI, you're risking your life every time you roll out the grill. CSPI warns that you shouldn't cook the hamburger too rare or you'll face a death sentence, and you shouldn't eat blackened or charred food because grilling and barbecuing are likely to create cancer-causing chemicals.

"We support the concept of what the Guest Choice Network is doing," says Rick McCarty, National Cattlemen's Beef Association executive director of issues management. "From what we've seen, we think they play a valuable role to help deal with activists trying to limit our choices in restaurants."

Sara Spangler is a summer intern with BEEF magazine.

The GCN gives its "nanny awards" each year to "the ever-expanding groups of food cops, health care enforcers, vegetarian activists, smoke police, meddling bureaucrats and self-appointed arbiters of lifestyle choices." Here are a few of the 1999 winners:

Former "Beatle" Paul McCartney was inducted into the Nanny Hall of Fame for his over-the-top financial support for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

USDA Secretary Dan Glickman wins the "Public Disservice" Award for leading the USDA's new "anti-fat" campaign, including a planned "nutritional intervention" program in Mississippi.

Carnival Cruise Lines wins the "Nicotine Nannies" Award for evicting a passenger for simply possessing tobacco on their smoke-free "Paradise" ship.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest wins the "Freshman Food Fight" Award for attempting to make the case that the soft drink beverage industry is to blame for obesity, heart disease and caffeine addiction.

Greenpeace wins the "Junk Science Junkets" Award for creating a worldwide panic by misrepresenting the results a small study that looked at the effect of genetically-engineered corn on Monarch butterfly caterpillars.