Sunday, September 24, 2006

That's the big worry about McDonalds

While I was concentrating solely on the locked-out supermarket workers, there were some other things going on in the world - well sort of. In my head I berated the snail for daring to care about any other issue, and in our office every Green press release arrived to annoyed rants about its irrelevance. But there were a couple of things I stored up in my mind as being worth writing about.

One was the Health Select Committee's inquiry into obesity. In particular, several fast-food chains were in the news a couple of weeks ago. This is how it was reported in the The Dominion Post:

Representatives of the multinationals fronted up to Parliament's health select committee yesterday and insisted their products did not cause obesity.
Because the only way to evaluate our food is whether or not it causes obesity. Unfortunately this is not just an isolated example, publicly the one quality we discuss about food most of the time is whether or not we make us fat. The only ideological difference is between the right who thinks this is an individual problem, and the left that blames it on the way food is produced (the Super Size Me analysis, as I think of it). I think those who have a left-wing analysis that perpetuate this discourse, are making a serious mistake. Curiousgyrl commented on Alas:
I agree with folks who question the panicked rhetoric declaring an obesity ‘epidemic,’ and who point out the fat hate that drives most of the discussion of this.

But I also think that there is a real problem with an agricultural and food distribution system that provides far more calories per day than needed and in which corn subsidies make processed staples like high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated corn oil ubiquitous. Are there blogs/books etc that address both of these problems?
I don't believe that these are two unrelated issues (although I absolutely don't believe that the number of calories that are produced is the main problem in our food supply). I don't think it's a coincidence that we have an moral panic over at obesity at a time when food is getting less nutritious.

McDonald's response to the select committee was:
McDonald's had reduced the saturated and trans fat content of its food, changed its menu to include healthy options and provided nutritional information about its menu.

A children's Chicken McNugget meal contained less fat, sodium, sugar and calories than a banana, glass of milk, and a peanut butter sandwich, she said.
See how easy it is for McDonalds to fight on these grounds. She's not talking about what's in the food: the vitamins, minerals, fibre, fats, carbohydrates, calories, that we need to live and that will make us strong. As soon as the discourse becomes about obesity, the makers of food don't have to justify what's in their food, and can instead claim that things aren't there. They don't have to look at what is in the banana, peanut butter sandwich and glass of milk, and compare that with what's in Chicken McNugget meal. It's the same with 'health foods', they're another way to commodify food, not a way for people to thrive. It's so much easier to take things out of food, to make them less food like, than to put things back into food, and make it more nutritious.*

Those of us who want food to be made for nutrition rather than profit can't turn the 'obesity' discourse to our side, because one of the points of the discourse is to point the finger in the wrong direction and to pretend that too many calories is the main problem, rather than scarcity of other nutrients.


  1. It might reassure you that lots of the people involved in the snail action and its planning (and the wider campaign to save Happy Valley) were also involved in projects, actions and fundraising for the locked out workers.

    Actually, I think it's really important not to let any one issue entirely take over everyone's focus - especially with regards to forfeiting longer term campaigns for short term ones.

    While priorities must be adjusted when new things come up (and I definately adjusted mine so I could do more for the locked out workers), it is important to not completely forget about the other projects, issues and oppressions in society at any stage :)

  2. corn subsidies make processed staples like high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated corn oil ubiquitous.

    Of course most right wing commentators would agree with you on this entirely as well...

  3. Anonymous8:08 am

    Thanks for engaging that comment; I think your points are quite good, and I think I largely agree with them.

    However, I am not totally clear on your argument--are you primarily identifying processed food as the problem? Or just low-quality processed food? Or does it seem broader than that to you? (for example bagged spinach is fairly, unprocessed as things go, but it's making people sick all over the US. Different arguments have come up as to what the underlying cause and solution to this problem are, for example; ‘we should eat locally; shipping food long distances is the problem’, ‘we should enforce government safety regulations; bad business practices are the problem’, ‘we should eat seasonally; bagged spinach is itself the problem’).

    Clearly, all of these arguments might be true; there is nothing about our food system that leads to the production of healthy food, nor to a logical, human distribution of food. This, I think is a pretty significant problem. Most importantly, many people in the world don’t get enough to eat.

    For those of us who do, it seems that bad food might be making us sick—we don’t know whether that is true, but we do know that diabetes, cancer, and heart disease are on the rise. Food seems like a good place to start looking for an explanation and a solution.

    Blaming ‘fat’—universally identifying it as the cause of other health problems, based on no evidence—doesn’t really make sense, and mostly just attracts attention from finding real answers. The level of fat hate in the culture is irrational and makes people’s lives bad (especially women’s lives as well as poor and working class people’s lives).

    But I worry that occasionally, obesity-debunking drifts into arguing that things are really fine with food and health, and that the only thing we need to do is fix our warped perceptions of fatness and thinness and end the oppressive cultural fixation on personal fitness.

    I think we must do those things, but we also should be careful not to overlook the potential dangers of the way we as a society as a whole are doing food and medicine.

    At any rate, I think that’s what I think. But this is one of those issues I don’t feel very settled about at all. I’ve learned a lot from reading Alas, and particularly appreciate Amp’s well researched posts backed up with great statistics.

  4. Anonymous8:10 am

    I'm not opposed to goverment subsidiesin general, I just suspect that we should have a better plan for them.

  5. its big business that ruins it for the rest of us

  6. Anonymous9:38 pm

    "Those of us who want food to be made for nutrition rather than profit.."

    ...should go out and start a co-op instead of lazy finger-pointing at McDonalds.

    Don't want to assume the risk?

    Then why should they be forced to?

    Anyway, your argument is false. McDonalds food is nutritious, as tested by US Department of Agriculture and the US Food and Drug Administration.

    But why let the facts get in the way of a blog post...

  7. Ah yes, the FDA. The organisation which called ketchup a 'vegetable' for the purpose of school lunches. And the USDA, with its unimpeachable standards for meat and meat by-products.

  8. Asher - It's more about my attitude towards the issue than the timing. When people were doing work around the police rapists I didn't think "Why are they doing such work at a time like this" I thought "I wish I had more time so I could help."

    Environmentalism isn't a priority for me at the best of times. The way environmental campaigns generally does nothing to make me more interested. I also have very little time for media stunts. So it all adds up to me yelling at my computer in days like those.

    curiousgurl - I was writing

    But I actually think all the examples you gave are about making food for profit not for nutrition. For example if food makes you sick that probably means short-cuts have been taken while it is being made, or there hasn't been proper inspections - both a result of trying to make profit. Other examples are processed food which has all the nutirtion take out, and growing vegetables for uniformity of look/ease of storage or pestiside resistance - rather than for nutritional value and taste.

    I see most food issues as coming from this same cause.

    I might question whether food would cause some of illnesses you listed, (for example I was under the impression that the rise in type 2 diabetes could largely be explained by the lowered diagnostic thresholds, and the increase of ethnic groups that tend to be prone to diabetes - as it is a heriditary disease). But I agree with your comments that it's important that we don't back away from a discussion of the way food is produced, and our well-being. I just think we need to make sure that we don't uphold the dominant discourse around fat in the way that we have that discussion

  9. I'm sorry I cant back this up with a link, but I read a great article about the type 2 diabetes issue & race which both indicated that incidence increased within "ethnic" communitites, and also threw convincing skepticism on the logic that some races are more prone to the disease as an inherent biological thing.

    I'm not sure about the diagnostic criteria, so you may be right.

    Sorry if I was being pedantic.

  10. Fast fod companies can make their food healthy too.. but most people dont seem to want their food to be healthy

    In these debates there are two types of people - those who want it to tase good and those who dont want it to exist (healthy or not).

    Macdonalds is what it is - thee are worse and better foods. It is possible to have unprocessed natural food that makes macdonalds look like a salad whole grain sandwich ............. and then there are salad whole grain sandwiches.

  11. Anonymous2:27 am

    carebear...obviously you dont know the meaning of the word "nutritious". I have a dictionary but if I lend it to you i probably wont get it back. Mcdonalds covers all major food groups, and some of the minor ones too. I enjoy the hunger buster, but i switch between big mac and mcchicken hunger busters because its pretty hard to decide sometimes