Are McDonald's meals putting American kids at risk? That's the claim of a lawsuit filed on behalf of New York children who have suffered health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. The suits are the latest challenge to the fast food industry, which has been under increasing attack for serving meals that are high in fat, cholesterol and sugar. The controversy over fast food is also at the center of a new novel by Starbuck O'Dwyer, called Red Meat Cures Cancer. He spoke recently with VOA's Nancy Beardsley about his book, and about the ongoing fast food debates.
Starbuck O'Dwyer has worked as a health care attorney for almost a decade. His cases focus mostly on federal and corporate issues like health insurance, not on the fast food industry. But his legal work has made him think about how official policies affect personal well being.
And he says Red Meat Cures Cancer had another source of inspiration we well. "I found as I looked at the American pop culture, fast food was at the epicenter of all the marketing influences on our lives. From pop music to the Hollywood industry, pop culture and fast food intersect so well. From our malls to our throughways we're continually bombarded by the marketing efforts of these companies, and so they play a very central role in our lives, whether we like it or not."
And that seemed to make fast food a perfect vehicle for social satire. In Red Meat Cures Cancer, Starbuck O'Dwyer tells the story of Sky Thorne, a top executive at what you might call the worst of all possible fast food chains, a company called Tailburger. Sky is looking forward to retiring soon when he's given a nearly impossible assignment.
He has one year to raise Tailburger's share of the fast food market from one percent to five percent or lose his job. "Tailburger is known for its basketball-sized burgers which are deep-fried twice. They've got 9 slices of cheese on them. It's not what you'd call a heart-smart choice. And the first advertising campaign he undertakes to raise the market share is basically a 'Torture Yourself' campaign, where instead of kowtowing to the health groups, he says eat as much as you want of this food and basically torture your body. And that brings everyone out of the woodwork, from the health groups to the state's attorney general," he says. "So he's forced to change tactics. And one of the arguments they come up with is that red meat cures cancer. It's from one of these beef-associated groups that comes up with studies telling you about the benefits of red meat, and he knows it is not going to be successful. And finally he decides to tie the company in with an adult web site, because he figures that's his last shot to bring the market share up," the author explains.
From scheming corporate executives to Hollywood celebrities to fitness fanatics, Starbuck O'Dwyer pokes fun at just about everyone in Red Meat Cures Cancer. While he says anything is fair game for satire, he also believes consumers should be able to eat what they want and companies should be able to serve what they want.
And he points to differences between fast food lawsuits and earlier legal action against tobacco companies. "The tobacco companies had their CEOs testify in front of Congress that, 'No, it wasn't addictive, no it's not bad for you.' I think the fast food companies are cognizant that that buys so much bad PR, that they're much better served by doing certain things that will appease the critics and turn towards the patrons and say, 'We'll meet you part of the way by encouraging kids to exercise, maybe adding some additional items to the menu.' There's sort of a mood in the country right now that's swinging anti-fast food. We've seen some closings. We've seen some articles that are a little bit negative, and I think they see that mood turning, and they want to shift it back," he says.
Beardsley: "As a lawyer looking at these cases, how much of a case can be made when you're dealing with an element of free choice?"
O'Dwyer: "A suit against a fast food company is a basic tort, which means you've got to show there's a duty, a breach of that duty, and then causation; the breach has to cause the injury, and then there's got to be a measurable harm. The duty itself is one that's questionable. What duty do fast food companies owe someone who comes into their store? They have a duty to serve them a safe meal. I don't think they have a duty to serve them a low-fat meal, certainly not. Let's assume though they have some type of duty to let people know what they're eating. You would then have to show that the fast food companies were being deceptive about what's in the product. Maybe you could argue that the wrapper doesn't have the contents on it, but somebody could say yes, but it's up on the wall. Let's say they got past that. Then you have to get to causation and say this fast food caused heart disease. But what if this person ever ate Dominos [pizza], or Ben and Jerrys (ice cream), or anything else that was fatty and sugar filled? Unlike cigarettes, where you've got a product that's been scientifically linked to a particular disease and people smoke one particular cigarette for 20, 30 years, here you've got people eating multiple products that could contribute to heart disease. I think it's a very tough case."
Beardsley: "Do you ever get a Big Mac craving yourself?"
O'Dwyer: "I'm a Wendy's guy. Double with cheese. If I indulge, that's it. Sure, I was driving across the country this past summer and found my choices off the throughway were only fast food places, so I had to give in a couple of times."
Starbuck O'Dwyer is a health care attorney and author of Red Meat Cures Cancer, a satirical novel about the fast food industry.
Red Meat Cures Cancer was published by Midnight Books, 7620 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda, Maryland 208140