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Fat City

Americans are overweight and the extra pounds are going to cost Big Business.

11:00 PM, Dec 1, 2003 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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In a rush to head off stringent regulation, the fast-food chains are taking two steps. Some are introducing healthy alternatives to their traditional fare: McDonald's new salad line, which comes with a bottle of water and a pedometer to encourage diners to walk the meal off, is proving popular, but then so is its new McGriddles breakfast sandwich: syrup-soaked pancakes stamped with a Golden Arches "M" (for "murder," say health advocates) replace the traditional buns. These calorie-laden end pieces bracket eggs, cheese, bacon, and sausage to the tune of 550 calories, 33 grams of fat, and 260 milligrams of cholesterol.

Others are now prominently stating the nutritional content of their offerings. PepsiCo gleefully announce that snack foods from its Frito-Lay unit contain no trans fats, which are linked to heart disease. At least one restaurant, the 5 Spot in Seattle, requires customers who order its $5.75 dessert, "The Bulge," to sign a liability waiver.

Until the geneticists can determine why some people wax on diets on which others wane, the more serious attacks on obesity will come from the Food and Drug Administration, the government regulator now chaired by Mark McClellan, a talented economist/physician. His Obesity Working Group, which met last week, is likely to mandate more revealing labeling of foods, and to recommend voluntary guidelines for restaurants. Listings of calories per serving may be replaced with listings of total calories in the entire package, despite industry opposition to such a move.

Whether FDA regulation will stem the tide of legislation--150 bills are now in the hoppers of state legislatures, most of them to control foods distributed in schools--is uncertain. But no matter what the regulators or the states do, the federal government is unlikely to stop subsidizing the production of sugar, corn, and other fattening food products. After all, it has always subsidized tobacco growers.

Irwin M. Stelzer is director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute, a columnist for the Sunday Times (London), a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.