The Anti-Big Mac Attack: Busybodies and trial lawyers set greedy eyes on food - food may be next target in products-liability cases

The Anti-Big Mac Attack: Busybodies and trial lawyers set greedy eyes on food - food may be next target in products-liability casesThe dream scenario for the fat police can be found in the unduly unsung film So I Married an Axe Murderer, starring Mike Myers (of Austin Powers fame). Myers plays two characters at once, a Scottish conspiracy theorist and his son. The father explains, in a thick Scottish burr, that it is "a well-known fact . . . that there's a secret society of the five wealthiest people in the world, known as the Pentaveret, who run everything in the world, including the newspapers, and meet triannually at a secret country mansion in Colorado, known as The Meadows." Members of the Pentaveret, he reveals, include the Queen, the Vatican, the Gettys, the Rothschilds, and Colonel Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, before he died. "Oh, I hated the Colonel," the father seethes, "with his wee beady eyes and that smug look on his face -- 'Oh, you're gonna buy my chicken!'"

"Dad, how can you hate . . . the Colonel?" the son asks.

"Because he puts an addictive chemical in his chicken that makes you crave it fortnightly . . . smart arse!"

If only the good people at the Center for Science in the Public Interest -- the same people who told us that Chinese food and popcorn keep the liposuction industry going -- could just nail down this addictive-KFC angle, their work would be so much easier. Unfortunately, for them, it has yet to be shown that Kentucky Fried Chicken -- or Big Macs, or Whoppers, or Chalupas, or any other staple of the fast-food industry for that matter -- contains any clinically addictive substances.

And, in the absence of any such evidence, it's going to be very difficult to claim that a 20-piece order of McNuggets is as bad as a carton of Camel unfiltereds. But that hasn't kept a broad array of sincere yet humorless public-health experts and insincere yet money- hungry trial lawyers from trying to go after fatty foods the way they went after cigarettes.

Kelly Brownwell, head of Yale's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, famously declared several years ago: "To me, there is no difference between Ronald McDonald and Joe Camel." Now Marion Nestle (no kidding), the chairman of NYU's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies and the managing editor of the Surgeon General's 1988 Report on Nutrition and Health, writes in her book Food Politics: "Like cigarette companies, food companies co-opt food and nutrition experts by supporting professional organizations and research, and they expand sales by marketing directly to children, members of minority groups, and people in developing countries -- whether or not the products are likely to improve people's diets."

The "targeting" of children and minority communities is a major rhetorical billy club for the food cops (though we might ask how blacks and other minorities feel about being likened to children in these warnings, in regard to their inability to constrain their gluttony). One wonders what might happen when news gets out that manufacturers of toys also directly target children. In fact, many toy companies completely disregard adult consumers and try to peddle their wares entirely to youngsters. Moreover, there are some rumors that Black Entertainment Television uses targeted messages to minorities. So, come to think of it, does the Democratic party.

Still, if it is difficult for some of us to take the war on fatty foods seriously, we must still try, because the other side is fat from victory (not literally, of course, because fatness is evil) in the war on Big Tobacco and trial lawyers must eat and the architects of health utopia can't just put away their T-squares and drawing boards. This fight is here whether we want to have it or not. Indeed, The Nation and other outlets have already taken to using the phrase "Big Food" without irony. The New York Times warned last May that "the lines have sharpened in what may prove to be a culture war for the new century. The battlefield is the American diet, particularly that of the nation's teenagers." Along with Nestle's Food Politics, a raft of Meal Kampf books have come out declaring fatty food to be the next great battleground.

John Banzhaf, one of the most obnoxious of anti-smoking zealots and a professor at George Washington University Law School, predicts that obesity lawsuits will be the wave of the future. "Smoking in the '70s was seen as an individual problem," he told "All that changed when people saw the impact on non-smokers like second-hand smoke."

Alas, there is no second-hand smoke when it comes to Big Macs, so out comes the ace in the hole of American politics: "the children." It only makes sense that you cannot have a "leave no child behind" policy if some of them are too slow and fat, always plopping down on the side of the road to eat, like the German kid in Willy Wonka. "More than the much-reviled products of Big Tobacco, big helpings and Big Food constitute the number-one threat to America's children," warned The Nation recently. So this time around, "the children" are being trotted out to justify "Twinkie taxes," a spate of anti-super-size regulations -- including advertising bans for many products -- and proposed nutrition guides on restaurant menus (i.e., "Duck a l'orange: 7,012 calories, 79 grams of fat," or the more straightforward warning, "Don't enjoy dinner ever again").

There is a smorgasbord of possible responses to the anti-fat jihad. Let's begin by pointing out the problem that "fat" has recently been redefined in a rather tendentious way. Americans are, in fact, healthier than they've ever been before. One way we know this is that they are living longer. But, sad to say, people still have to die of something; it only makes sense that as we cure more diseases and make cars safer, we're going to die of things related to the kinds of yummy foods we can all afford to eat. In response to this tide of healthiness, we've decided to define obesity down: According to the new federal guidelines for obesity, we're all fat. The Center for Consumer Freedom, the restaurant industry's point-group in this battle, used the federal government's new guidelines for what constitutes a healthy weight and concluded that movie stars Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise qualify as somewhere between fat and obese; ditto Cal Ripken and Michael Jordan. By this standard, I'm heavy enough to bend light.

Now, none of this changes the fact that many Americans are probably too fat and that children make bad choices (of course, this is one of the main reasons we call them "children" in the first place). But they are choices. The chutzpah of liberals who've made sexual liberty perhaps the highest social value but who condemn the freedom to eat a pizza is astounding. Irving Kristol's quip that "a liberal is one who says that it's all right for an 18-year-old girl to perform in a pornographic movie as long as she gets paid the minimum wage" might now be updated to "a liberal is one who says it's okay to have a super-kinky orgy, so long as everyone uses fat-free chocolate sauce."

In the January/February 2000 issue of Public Health Reports, Marion Nestle coauthored an article titled "Halting the Obesity Epidemic," in which she and the head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Michael Jacobson, attacked the past emphasis on "individual behavior change." "What is needed," they wrote, "is substantial involvement of and investment by government at all levels." Change the word "food" to "sex" -- not altogether outlandish, considering AIDS -- and you can just imagine the howls. Well, if we can't judge what two guys do with each other in the privacy of their bedroom, I'll be damned if you can judge what I do alone with a breakfast burrito.

Indeed, it would be much easier to take the fat cops seriously if they spoke out against the growing trend of treating the hefty as a new identity-politics group with special rights. Want to create an incentive to eat properly? Remove the IRS's "disability" status for obesity. Promote charging by weight for airlines -- and by size for clothing.

Even if you believe the war on Big Tobacco was warranted and salutary for society, the analogy to the war on Big Food fails miserably in every important way. People don't need to smoke. They do need to eat (you could look it up). There's no comestible version of secondhand smoke and, rumors of the Pentaveret notwithstanding, there's no nicotine-like chemical that makes you crave fast food fortnightly. The trial-lawyer mantra that "cigarettes are the only legal product that, when used as directed, will kill you," cannot be amended to include pizza. Ultimately, the sole characteristic that applies to both fatty foods and cigarettes is that overindulgence in them creates "unnecessary burdens" for the health-care industry. And that's just not good enough.