August 6, 2002
The lawsuit filed recently holding McDonald's and three other fast-food giants responsible for an obese man's diabetes and other health problems is good news for Americans, all things considered. No, fast food isn't the only contributor, and, yes, we need to take responsibility for what we eat. But it's time we recognized the power that industry has over our food choices.
The truth is that the beef, chicken, pork, dairy, sugar and fast-food industries -- through their tremendous political and economic clout -- manipulate what Americans think, know and believe about food. With such an uneven playing field, it's tough for those of us speaking in the public interest to compete.
Just take a look at advertising budgets. The food industry spends billions a year pushing its unhealthy products -- McDonald's alone spent $627 million in 1999 on advertising; Burger King spent more than $400 million; the "milk-mustache"/got milk? campaign totals $180 million a year. Yet, in that same year, the national "5 A Day" Campaign for Better Health had less than $3 million to promote fruits and vegetables. No wonder kids prefer Happy Meals to apples. No wonder diabetes and other diet-and-lifestyle-related diseases claim up to 2 million deaths per year.
Dominating the airwaves is only one weapon in the food industry's arsenal. Through campaign contributions and lobbying, Big Food affects legislation and government nutrition policy. Through donations of educational materials and contracts with school food service departments, the industry manipulates children's eating preferences. By sponsoring scientific conferences and academic research, junk food manufacturers even skew what nutrition professionals think is healthy. And of course, the omnipresence of cheap fast-food outlets makes it all too easy to succumb.
The lawsuit filed in New York is the start of something big. Fast-food companies aren't the only ones who could be held liable for America's diet-related epidemics. Meat producers, like the tobacco companies, are knowingly producing harmful foods.
Decades of scientific evidence show that the cholesterol and saturated fat in beef, chicken, pork and dairy products dramatically increase the risk of colon cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, obesity and other diseases.
Yet these businesses get away with all kinds of product promotions and deceptive ad campaigns, claiming their products are healthy, even necessary to good nutrition.
Unfortunately, meat producers and fast-food companies aren't the only ones doling out bad nutrition advice. Too many physicians lack adequate nutrition training. Our organization frequently hears about doctors prescribing high-protein, meat-heavy diets -- even to heart disease patients. Given the many health problems associated with these diets, it's clear doctors who prescribe them may be putting themselves at risk for a malpractice suit.
The courts have held Big Tobacco liable for selling a dangerous product, and that was a product that people could have "chosen" not to use. It's time we realized that diet, too, is more than just a matter of personal choice.
Whether or not this first fast-food lawsuit wins in the courtroom, it will succeed in exposing food industry tactics. And its biggest potential lies in its ability to communicate a positive nutrition message -- that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables that skips animal products, processed foods, fat and sugar is the key to good health.
Neal Barnard is president of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (http://www.pcrm.org). Mindy Kursban is PCRM's general counsel. Readers may write to them at: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 5100 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20016.
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