Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Fat of the Land

Nothing hits the spot when you're hungry like a quarter-pounderwith cheese and an order of fries.

Supersize it? Hell yes.

Truth be told, however, I haven't had either one in more than a year. Why? Because I have learned a diet that includes fast food on a regular basis can give you an up close and personal relationship with obesity, hypertension and diabetes. Hold the heart attack, please.

I mention this because a recent Associated Press story said that McDonald's Corp. is once again facing an outbreak of bad publicity expected from a new book, "Chew on This," and a movie due out later this year based on "Fast Food Nation." a book critical of that industry.

The book and the movie hold fast food companies responsible for the nation's childhood obesity epidemic and criticizes them for being low-wage employees.

Nothing new here. McDonald's, an easy target for those with a beef, so to speak, against Styrofoam containers, the consumption of animals or other alleged crimes against nature, has been sued numerous times, accused of fostering obesity. Courts have dismissed most of the claims.

And McDonald's, along with others in the industry, is beginning to introduce menu items that would warm a vegetarian's heart, due mostly to changing tastes and consumer pressure.

That is not to say I'm a stauch defender of the fast food industry. For one thing, they target kids. Or as "Fast Food Nation" author Eric Schlosser says, "This is an industry that feeds and feeds off the young."

To underscore that point, consider that McDonalds is one of the biggest toy companies in the world. One out of three toys received by a child in the United States comes from a fast food restaurant. As any marketing type will tell you, building brand loyalty among the very young usually attracts the rest of the family resulting in a relationship that lasts for generations. Just ask the breakfast cereal manufacturers.

And there's no debating the reach and power of the fast food industry. Again, Schlosser writes, Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers,videos, and recorded music - combined.

Schlosser's point is that the fast food industry has used political influence to increase profits at the expense of human health and the social conditions of its workers. There is probably some truth to that. It wouldn't be the first time in this country that business has put the pursuit of profits above the public good (see the tobacco industry).

However, McDonald's thrived in large part because it was in the right place at the right time. Just about the time the chain was growing, the Americn landscape was undergoing a sea change. Women were entering the workforce in record numbers, In 1975, about one-third of American mothers with young children worked outside the home; today almost two-thirds of such mothers are employed.

Mealtime became crunch time. Fast food became a convenience that became a necessity.

Ultimately, there is something troubling about making burger joints a metaphor for all that is wrong with America. Are we all such slaves to the power of marketing that we need a lawyer or an animal rights activist or a nutritionist to protect us fromourselves?

Do we need to go to waddle off to court when our pants get too tight, looking to blame someone, anyone but the person responsible?

Are you going to tell me that you didn't know that living on burgers, pizza and burritos could be injurious to your health?

Are you going to say you were addicted to fries? That you broke out in a cold sweat if you couldn't suck up a bucket of fried chicken? That your hands trembled if a stuft crust pizza wasn't on the menu?

Are you suggesting you couldn't stop yourself from pushing fast food on your kids? That you don't read the nutrition information on the products you buy?

You want an answer to the problem of obesity in America? Look in the mirror. If you don't like what you see, stop patronizing places that make you that way.

If, instead, you decide to sue, you better hope I'm not on the jury.

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