America's French Disease

Can you imagine Americans’ outrage if they find out their favorite food may be loaded with carcinogens?

June 11, 2002

Can you imagine Americans' outrage if they find out their favorite food may be loaded with carcinogens?

In the 1950s, U.S. tobacco companies discovered that there is a direct link between smoking and cancer. After lengthy internal deliberations, they made a huge mistake.

They decided to suppress the evidence — so much so that they even fought tooth and nail against the U.S. government’s campaign in the early 1960s to put health warnings on cigarettes.

Of course, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and other cigarette manufacturers were not alone in their efforts to conceal the truth. But in their efforts at the time, they were aided and abetted by the U.S. media.

Plenty of independent studies were done over the years — and medical evidence of the dangers of tobacco use continued to mount.

The problem was that, for a long time, such findings did not get the kind of play they deserved on television and in the press.

The ultimate result has been an unmitigated public health disaster for U.S. society. Over the years, health problems stemming from cigarette smoking substantially reduced life expectancy in the United States and imposed enormous costs on individuals — as well as on federal, state and local governments.

For tobacco companies, litigation and huge jury awards, mainly based on documents proving that they knew all along about the hazards of smoking, have been equally ruinous.

In November 1998, the U.S. tobacco industry reached a settlement with state governments agreeing to pay out $246 billion to compensate them for the health care costs they have incurred.

But this has not stopped a flood of individual, government and class action suits.

And now, a new health crisis may be quietly brewing in the United States. Or, as the case may be, not so quietly. Evidence of an impending disaster in the food industry continues to pile up.

Consider a recent study in Sweden which found extremely high levels of a potential carcinogen, acrylamide, in fried and baked foods that contain starch. Acrylamide is a chemical that is used industrially to produce plastics.

While such starch-rich foods as potatoes do not contain acrylamide when used fresh, in such processed food products as french fries and potato chips the level of acrylamide was alarmingly high.

So high, in fact, that the Swedish researchers said that if it had been found in a less ubiquitous product, they would demand that it be taken off the market immediately.

This is not a trifling matter for the United States. Americans are huge consumers of potatoes, which is the largest vegetable crop in the country — accounting for 16% of cash receipts, or $2.7 billion.

Moreover, while in the past people ate potatoes fresh, in recent decades the share of processed potatoes has increased dramatically. In 1959, only 19% of the U.S. potato crop was processed, a proportion that grew to 56% by 2000.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, of the 288 million tons of potatoes that were processed, 18% were used in making potato chips and similar snack food varieties.

Meanwhile, a whopping 60% were frozen, which were then mainly consumed as french fries.

With the rise of the U.S. fast food industry, the consumption of french-fried frozen potatoes rocketed. Each American is estimated to eat 16 pounds of french-fried poatoes per year. That's for every man, woman and child!

McDonald's, which uses 7% of America's potato crop for its french fries, accounts for about one third of potato-product consumption in the United States — or more than 5 pounds of french fries per American each year!

You would expect that a reputable medical study which closely linked french fries and potato chips to cancer would be front-page news in U.S. newspapers and a lead story on the evening news. It was not.

In fact, other than a report on NBC, the U.S. media hardly bothered to report on it.

Why? One suspects there may be a close link between the fast food industry's ample advertising budget and the deafening silence in the media. After all, the food industry spends $30 billion per year in advertising.

And McDonald’s, according to an ABC News Report, plumped down $500 million just on the "We love to see you smile" campaign.

Ads for McDonalds and its competitors, such as Wendy's, Burger King, KFC and dozens of others, dominate TV screens. News editors who have the courage to antagonize such powerful advertisers do so at their own peril. All the more so as the advertising industry has been going through a nasty downturn in recent years.

This connection between the docility of the media and advertising is by no means new. Not surprisingly, the coverage of health risks associated with smoking took off only after the 1971 ban on cigarette advertising on television and radio.

The settlement with the U.S. government that banned cigarette advertising altogether dealt a powerful blow to the tobacco industry. Now, the news hounds can finally roam unleashed in the closets of the tobacco industry.

At present, no such ban threatens french fries or potato chips, which means that investigative reporters do not look at those snacks too closely.

Not surprisingly, fast food outlets and chains continue to expand. One recent trend in the United States has been to set up fast food franchises at public schools, university campuses — and even hospitals.

Feeding kids or patients a Big Mac with a super-sized portion of french fries is considerably cheaper than running a food service operation. Similarly, the consumption of potato chips continues to grow unabated.

But this doesn't mean that the U.S. food industry is not aware of the problem. "Fried" has gradually become a word that carries negative connotations — sort of like "cigarette smoke".

That might explain why Kentucky Fried Chicken discretely changed its name to KFC about a decade ago — to get away from such unpleasantness.

One has to wonder, though, whether the U.S. food industry will be able to avoid other parallels with the tobacco industry.

Based on past experience, the harder the industry in question tried to evade ever clearer evidence, the higher the legal awards which were eventually issued against them turned out to be.

More on this topic