Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Friday, March 12, 2004 9:11 pm

Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that cigarettes cheeseburgers are hazardous to your health

Lots of news recently on the fat front.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that by next year, obesity is expected to become America’s No. 1 killer, overtaking cigarette smoking. (For those interested, here are the top 10 causes of deaths in the U.S. in 2000, a link I stumbled across while searching for the previous link.)

On Wednesday, the House passed a bill banning lawsuits against restaurants for health problems caused by eating.

Kevin “Calpundit” Drum suggests we’ve got ourselves something of a, you’ll pardon the term, Mexican standoff:

On the one hand, I don’t think much of using civil damage suits aimed at a specific industry as a way of changing social policy. Down that road lies madness.

But at the same time, I also don’t think much of Congress exempting specific industries from the civil justice system. That can lead to some madness of its own.

Unfortunately, these two principles seem pretty well balanced, so I can’t figure out which one is more important. Tentatively, I think I’m opposed to Congress fiddling in such a specific manner with the civil justice system. I’d rather have them propose general reforms that would broadly affect the ability to bring lawsuits like this. Once that’s done, let the system work equally for every industry.

Unfortunately, I think the dilemma in which we find ourselves is a bit more complicated than just that. And that’s pretty complicated to start.

First, I think the responsibility for maintaining one’s own health lies primarily with oneself. I see the government’s role as more limited: protecting us from the things we cannot protect ourselves from and the market will not protect us from, such as dirty air and water and contaminated food.

Moreover, like Drum, I oppose using civil litigation against a specific industry to change social policy.

But, also like Drum, I oppose exempting specific industries from civil justice, particularly when there may be no other curb, public or private, on the industry’s behavior and particularly when such legislation comes before the industry’s responsibility, or lack thereof, is determined. An example would be Congress’ granting retroactive immunity to Eli Lilly against lawsuits alleging its vaccine preservative Thimerosal had caused autism in children. If Thimerosal caused the autism (still an open scientific question as far as the government is concerned) and the company knew or should have known, it ought to be as vulnerable to lawsuits as any company whose immediate past North American head was not the White House budget director.

Where I’m going with this is three years into the past, when Malcolm Gladwell published an article in the March 5, 2001, New Yorker about the nation’s love affair with fast food. It points out that after animal fats were linked to health problems, a lot of fast-food makers switched to vegetable oils. But many of them were hydrogenated, or trans unsaturated, fats — the now-infamous “trans fats” — which are much worse for you:

According to a recent study involving some eighty thousand women, for every five-per-cent increase in the amount of saturated fats that a woman consumes, her risk of heart disease increases by seventeen per cent. But only a two-per-cent increase in trans fats will increase her heart-disease risk by ninety-three per cent.

Put another way, french fries fried in saturated fat are bad for you. But french fries fried in trans fat are little salty death sticks.

But, Gladwell points out, there are other options, such as Olestra, the “fake fat” that carries little of the health risk of traditional fats. It is, he says, “entirely possible, right now, to make a delicious French fry that does not carry with it a death sentence.” Moreover, scientists at Auburn University used a seaweed derivative called carageenan to develop a variety of beef for hamburgers that not only contained only 5 percent fat (vs. 20 percent for “regular” ground beef), it also beat regular hamburgers in blind taste testing and in such characteristics as “likability,” “tenderness,” “flavorfulness,” and “juiciness.”

McDonald’s actually marketed burgers made with this new, healthier beef: Perhaps you remember the McLean Deluxe sandwich. No? Yeah, well, it lasted less than four years before being pulled because of poor sales. Why? Because it was marketed as healthy. People only preferred it in blind taste tests, when they didn’t know that what they were eating was better for them, Gladwell says:

For years, the nutrition movement in this country … has assumed that the best way to help people improve their diets is to tell them precisely what’s in their food, to label certain foods good and certain foods bad. But transparency can backfire, because sometimes nothing is more deadly for our taste buds than the knowledge that what we are eating is good for us. McDonald’s should never have called its new [sandwich] the McLean Deluxe, in other words. They should have called it the Burger Supreme or the Monster Burger, and then buried the news about reduced calories and fat in the tiniest type on the remotest corner of their Web site. And if we were to cook fries in some high-tech, healthful cooking oil — whether Olestrized beef tallow or something else with a minimum of trans and saturated fats — the worst thing we could do would be to market them as healthy fries. They will not taste nearly as good if we do. They have to be marketed as better fries, as Classic Fries, as fries that bring back the rich tallowy taste of the original McDonald’s.

It is interesting to ponder what might have happened to McDonalds’ sales, and the nation’s health, if the chain had done what Gladwell would later recommend. The blind taste tests suggest consumers would never have been the wiser and might even have liked the new burgers better, boosting Mickey D’s sales.
Moreover — and this is where we get back to the lawsuits and the role of government — I’ve got to wonder: In the absence of an overwhelming market preference to the contrary (or, in this case, any preference to the contrary at all), what is a company’s legal, moral and ethical responsibility to use a safer ingredient, to make a safer product? It hardly seems fair for me to sue McDonald’s because I love cheeseburgers. But it also hardly seems fair for McDonald’s to serve me cheeseburgers that are so lethal when a safer, equally “effective” (i.e., in this case, tasty) alternative is available.

Could McDonalds’ current recipes be construed as the kind of “contamination” from which, many people believe, the government has a legitimate role to play in protecting us?

I’m just askin’.

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