- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 9, 2004

“Super Size Me,” a funny but tendentious film that ends with a wishful image of clown corporate symbol Ronald McDonald’s grave, begins with an epigram from McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc: “Look after the customer, and the business will take care of itself.”

It’s not clear whether Morgan Spurlock, the film’s director and star, is mocking Kroc or suggesting Kroc’s corporate descendants have forsaken his credo.

Perhaps that’s because Mr. Spurlock can’t quite decide. He seems torn between the movie’s main story line, in which sneaky corporations manipulate people to overeat, and the more complicated reality, in which companies respond to consumer demands only sometimes driven by health concerns.

“For me,” Mr. Spurlock announced at the D.C. International Film Festival on May 2, “the personal responsibility issue is very important.” Yet the movie, which opened nationwide Friday (and in which I briefly appear), presents the results of Mr. Spurlock’s monthlong McDonald’s binge as validation of the reasoning behind the unsuccessful lawsuit two obese New York City teenagers filed against McDonald’s in 2002.

Mr. Spurlock says his exercise in extreme eating, during which he gained nearly 25 pounds, was meant to determine if fast food is “unreasonably dangerous,” which would make it “defective” under product liability law, and whether it causes “injury,” which plaintiffs must demonstrate to recover damages. But in planning his fast-food feat, he paid no heed to the central reason the McDonald’s lawsuit was dismissed.

U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet ruled January 2003: “Any liability based on overconsumption is doomed if the consequences of such overconsumption are common knowledge.” He added: “If a person knows or should know that eating copious orders of supersized McDonald’s products is unhealthy and may result in weight gain … It is not the place of the law to protect them from their own excesses.

“Nobody is forced to eat at McDonald’s. … Even more pertinent, nobody is forced to supersize their meal or choose less healthy options on the menu.”

Although Mr. Spurlock concedes “my experiment may have been a little extreme,” he notes some people eat at McDonald’s regularly, even daily. But despite the plethora of calorie-packed dishes offered by McDonald’s, he easily could have eaten three meals a day there without gaining weight.

An Egg McMuffin, orange juice and coffee for breakfast; a grilled chicken bacon ranch salad and iced tea for lunch; and a double cheeseburger, medium fries and diet Coke for dinner total fewer than 1,800 calories, well under the 2,500 Mr. Spurlock’s doctor says would have maintained his 185-pound starting weight. By contrast, Mr. Spurlock says he consumed some 5,000 calories daily and avoided physical activity.

In short, Mr. Spurlock’s “experiment” proves nothing but basic physics. Still, he is right in suggesting there’s an association between the proliferation of restaurants and Americans’ bulging bellies. That was confirmed by a statistical analysis the National Bureau of Economic Research published in October 2002.

At the same time, the researchers emphasized “the growth in these restaurants, and especially fast-food restaurants, is to a large extent a response to the increasing scarcity and increasing value of household or nonmarket time.” In other words, economic changes such as more women working outside the home have boosted demand for fast, convenient meals.

The NBER’s summary said, “Fast-food or convenience meals should rightly be considered as much an effect as a cause of American eating patterns.” Mr. Spurlock seems to grasp this. “Why do we go to fast-food restaurants?” he said at the D.C. film festival. “Because it’s easy.”

Though conceding fast-food chains respond to consumer demand, Mr. Spurlock criticized them for not providing conspicuous nutritional information. He praised TGI Friday’s for including calorie counts on its menus and suggested McDonald’s could do the same, but “they fear losing money.”

Even if true, that’s not the end of the story. Presumably TGI Friday’s decided it could make money by changing its menus, attracting business from less forthcoming competitors. The market will determine who is right.

Even while urging his audience to demand healthier options, Mr. Spurlock warned that fast-food chains “owe their loyalty to stockholders, not to you.” If he had taken Ray Kroc’s observation to heart, he would have realized stockholders get what they want only when customers do.

Jacob Sullum, a nationally syndicated columnist, is the author of “Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use.”

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