Thursday, September 01, 2005


Morgan Spurlock seems to be everywhere these days. The F/X cable channel just slotted his new series "30 Days" for a second season, and he also just inked another show on Comedy Central, on which he'll head a panel that discusses current events. Spurlock, of course, was the filmmaker behind the much-acclaimed documentary"Super Size Me," in which he ate 5,000 calories worth of McDonalds food each day for 30 days, shunned any exercise or physical activity, then blamed the Golden Arches when – surprise! – peculiar things began to happen to his body. He has also just published "Don’t Eat This Book," a book that takes direct aim at the food industry.

Spurlock seems to fancy himself a modern-day muckraker. The problem is, his various media ventures are often distorted by a complete lack of context and, at times, outright misinformation. What’s worse, few in the media have been willing to call him on it. The series "30 Days" is based on the same premise as "Super Size Me." Each episode immerses a real person into an unfamiliar environment, generally with the aim of teaching some life lesson. Like "Super Size Me," the show has its charm, though it also suffers from much of the same conceit.

Columnist Debbie Schlussel recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that she refused to participate in an episode in which a man lives for a month in a Muslim community because producers told her the outcome of the show, billed as a documentary, had been predetermined. In another episode, a mother goes on a binge drinking spree to teach her daughter the dangers of alcohol. Both the mother and the daughter have since publicly complained on Internet message boards and web sites about how instructions from producers and distortions in the editing process created caricatures of them both that were at odds with reality.

Spurlock's new book has many of the same problems. Marketed as a companion reader to "Super Size Me," "Don't Eat This Book" lambastes the food industry for deceptive marketing and bad business practices. The problem is, for someone so critical of deceptive marketing practices, Spurlock himself seems to have problems with the truth. Just a few examples:

--Spurlock writes in his book that McDonalds uses beef that has been fed the ground-up remains of other cows. But the FDA has banned this practice of feeding ruminant remnants to other ruminants since 1997. Spurlock essentially accuses McDonalds of breaking federal law for the past eight years, and provides no sources for his accusation.

--In one particularly egregious passage, Spurlock tells his readers that the FDA has linked the artificial sweetener aspartame to side effects such as headaches, dizziness, nausea and hallucinations. But Spurlock's own source for that passage -- a 1999 issue of the FDA Consumer -- lists these effects only to specifically refute them. The newsletter attributes the claims to "[w]ebsites with screaming headlines," and finds them wholly without merit.

--Spurlock writes that "a friend" told him McDonalds no longer calls its shakes "milkshakes" because they're all chemicals, and no milk. This is an urban legend. The primary ingredient in a McDonalds shake is "whole milk."

Spurlock did not respond to numerous requests to be interviewed for this column.

Of course, these are just a few examples. Much of the book rests on the same kinds of poor sourcing and shoddy research. Spurlock appears to have run with any dirt on the food industry he could find. He even dismisses the Ronald McDonald Children's Charities, which he implies are merely a ruse to get sick kids hooked on the Big Mac.

None of this is to say that McDonalds or the food industry in general are perfect corporate citizens. Nor are all of Spurlock's criticisms of them without merit. For a long time, for example, McDonalds claimed its fries were vegetarian, even as it continued to flavor them with beef tallow. Vegetarians and people with religious dietary restrictions were rightly upset. The company apologized, and paid a settlement. McDonalds also reneged on a promise to cut the trans-fats from its food. Here too, the company apologized, and paid a settlement.

"Super Size Me" was in many ways a hoax that generated false public outrage against a food company, while netting Spurlock fame and fortune. In this regard, he's not much different from Anna Ayala, the woman who falsely claimed to have found a human finger in her bowl of Wendy's chili last April in order to win a big settlement. Good police work stopped Ayala's scam, which cost Wendy's $25 million in lost sales, and may cost Ayala up to nine years in prison. Unfortunately, the media, which should be acting as Spurlock's watchdog, have yet to hold Spurlock accountable for his inaccuracies. Only a few opinion columnists and restaurant industry spokesmen have taken him on, people Spurlock dismisses in his book not by actually addressing their arguments, but by merely pointing out where they get their funding.

Ironically enough, Spurlock began his television career at MTV on a show called "I Bet You Will," in which he paid people to eat disgusting things on camera. He once paid a woman $250 to shave her head, then eat a giant ball of her own hair mixed with butter. He paid another man to eat an entire jar of mayonnaise. Still another to swallow dog feces. When asked if he felt his show was exploitive, he replied, "No way. Everybody knows what they're getting into. Everybody has a good time. If somebody walks by and doesn't enjoy it, hey, it's a free country. Just keep on walking, man."

Spurlock has apparently had an epiphany about personal responsibility and good nutrition. Today, he wants tight government controls over how food companies market their products. But a close reading of Spurlock's oeuvre thus far suggests he's no Upton Sinclair. The media should stop fawning over Spurlock, and take his future output with a healthy helping of skepticism.



West Virginia's status as the third-fattest state, confirmed in a recent report from the Trust for America's Health, gives new meaning to the phrase "Mountain Mama" in John Denver's Blue Ridge paean "Country Roads." For the morbidity and mortality experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it also poses a puzzle: Why are West Virginians so fat?

I'll hazard a guess and say it's because they eat too much. But the CDC is not satisfied with layman's explanations. A few months ago, it sent a team of investigators to hunt the source of West Virginia's obesity outbreak. According to the New York Times, the CDC's "disease detectives" spent three weeks in Gilmer County and Clarksburg, asking the tough questions that needed to be asked. At local schools they demanded to know if "at least one or two appealing fruits and vegetables" were offered every day in the cafeteria, and if the administration would consider replacing regular sour cream with a low-fat version.

In local workplaces, they asked if fruit juice and bottled water were available in the vending machines and if employees could get extra time for their lunch breaks if they promised to spend it walking. They surveyed the produce and milk selections in "random grocery stores and restaurants." They looked for sidewalks and checked them for cracks.

Upon hearing about the CDC's epidemiological odyssey, Florida State University statistics professor Daniel McGee "burst out laughing," the Times reported. "My God," he said, "what a strange thing to do." Another statistician, the University of Wisconsin's David DeMets, was similarly dismissive, saying, "We get a lot of false positives from that kind of investigation," since there's no way to tell whether any given factor contributes to obesity or, if so, how much.

The CDC began by fighting malaria in the South and today is determined to eradicate obesity there. Yet the CDC is simply following the logic of its own rhetoric. Facing a nationwide "epidemic" especially pronounced in Southern states, it is looking for the vectors that transmit the "disease." Once the government understands these vectors, the CDC assumes, it can control obesity as malaria can be controlled by draining mosquito-breeding swamps, and cholera by removing pump handles from contaminated wells.

This approach would make perfect sense if micro-organisms caused obesity. But since obesity is due to certain behavior patterns, themselves subject to myriad influences, this is one case the disease detectives are unlikely to solve. That has not stopped them from rounding up the usual suspects. A study in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health, warns of fast food "clustering" near schools. "The concentration of fast-food restaurants around schools within a short walking distance for students is an important public health concern," the researchers declare, "in that it represents a deleterious influence in the food environment that may undermine public health efforts to improve nutritional behaviors in young people."

Since "public health" appears twice in a sentence that also mentions the environment, this must be serious. But what exactly are they talking about? The study found 80 percent of Chicago primary and secondary schools are within 800 meters of a fast-food outlet (about a 10-minute walk); 35 percent are only 400 meters away: "A significantly greater number of fast-food restaurants are located within a short distance from schools than would be expected if there were no spatial dependence." Though the Center for Science in the Public Interest immediately cited the study as evidence the "food industry targets children," the simplest explanation is that fast-food restaurants tend to be located in commercial areas with many potential customers. There was no sign of "clustering" around schools in noncommercial areas. In any case, the researchers present no evidence a McDonald's or Subway located near school makes students fatter.

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