Wednesday, June 23, 2010

CSPI vs Ronald McDonald

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is at it again. The “Food Police,” as food industry advocates have dubbed it, is now targeting that great American institution, McDonald’s.

The CSPI is best known for whining about consumer food favorites such as buttered theater popcorn and sugary-sweet breakfast cereals. This is the group that forced the Kellogg Company to stop marketing its sweetest and best-tasting food product choices directly to young children. Now, those kids will have to rely on Mom to decide whether to allow them to eat the foods they love best.

Did you know that one Boomin’ Onion from Outback Steak House has more than a full day’s worth of calories, about 2,500? Well, neither did I until the CSPI came right out and said it, thus spoiling the enjoyment of millions of Americans as they belly up to the table to devour one of their favorite appetizers prior to digging into that giant steak and potato meal.

This same organization is responsible for bullying KFC into frying its chicken in oil that has no trans fats. Now, although trans fats are a menace to health, it was the CSPI that, back in the mid-1990s, threw its weight around and forced restaurants to stop using saturated fats in their fried foods. So these restaurants, in order to appease the Food Police, started using trans fats in place of saturated fats. It is now known that trans fats are far worse than saturated fats for being deleterious to human health. In essence, then, the CSPI forced the food industry to start using a product that was actually worse than the product that it replaced. Ten years later, CSPI basically said, “Our bad, just kidding.” Its policy now is to promote the frying of food in oil that has no saturated fats or trans fats. But these are the exact kinds of fat that make fried foods taste the best.

It should be clear by now that the CSPI has a vendetta against great-tasting food, especially as it is marketed to young children. Soon, if the CSPI gets its way, there will be no more toys in Happy Meals, no more little doodads in packages of breakfast cereal, and dare I say, no more tiny comic books or cheap rings inside boxes of Cracker Jacks. What will be next, the demise of Bazooka Joe?

Think about it, a world with no bright and colorful cereal boxes with cartoon characters on them. And there’ll be no more Saturday-morning commercials with fun cartoon characters. No longer will kids get the pleasure of collecting cereal box tops to send in and get a cool decoder ring. Parents will be forced to determine what foods to buy for their children based on taste and nutrition rather than just letting their kids decide for themselves what to beg their parents into buying for them based on delightfully-funny cartoon pitchmen or the promise of cheap toys.

What a dull and listless world that would be.

But taking the tongue out of my cheek for a moment, obviously directing advertisements of junk food directly at young children is a bit dodgy. One might conclude that it is the government’s responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen. After all, state governments have mandated the use of car seats and seat belts for children because, the thinking is, if the parents are not going to take steps to protect their children from harm, then society will by enacting laws.

The Federal government has banned tobacco companies from marketing to teens by forbidding the use of cool images, like cartoon camels, in product ads. So is it much of a leap to advocate barring the use of cartoon characters in the marketing of junk food to kids or preventing restaurants and cereal makers from including toys in their unhealthy food products?

On the one hand, there is the argument that too much government interference in the free market is not a good thing. There are freedom-of-speech issues to consider as well. But, on the other hand, one job of the government is to protect its citizens, by preventing one group of citizens (the food industry, say) from harming another group of citizens (underage consumers). CSPI has threatened to sue McDonald’s if it does not stop giving away toys with the purchase of some Happy Meals. But a better solution might be to simply inform parents, or even to launch their own ad campaign directed at kids to inform them directly of the dangers of consuming french fries and other fatty, starch-laden foods.

Unless we, as a society, really do want to ban all advertising and promotions directed at children (which some say we should), then a better solution would be for organizations such as CSPI to educate and advise, rather than try to force compliance by suing.

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