The Chicago Personal Injury Law Blog

CDC Attacks (Defames?) Fast Food With Questionable Stats

Fighting the nation's obesity epidemic is a noble cause. Fighting dirty, however is not. The Center for Disease Control recently released some data on fast food portion sizes, and the news outlets seem to be eating it up, including the Huffington Post.

For those in the fast food know, the CDC's recently published infograph on portion sizes seems deceptive on the surface; if it is, does the attempted end of obesity justify the means?

The claims behind the infograph indicate that fast-food portion sizes have spiraled out of control. In the 1950s, a soda was only 7 oz. Now, the average soda served at a restaurant is 42 oz. Similar stats are presented for hamburgers, going from 3.9 oz to 12 oz, and fries, increasing from 2.4 to 6.7 oz.

The problem is, those numbers, to put it politely, seem like rubbish.

Chicago's most-local fast food company would probably be McDonald's, which is headquartered in Oak Brook, Illinois. It's also the former employer of a certain legal blogger. McDonald's has been targeted a lot in the past few years, both over portion sizes and over the use of pink slime.

They responded to both, first by eliminating the "Super Size" and second by taking pink slime out of their burgers.

We'll use their menu as the counterpoint to the CDC's claims.

CDC The New (Ab)normal

The CDC states that the average beverage size is 42 oz. That would be the same as the now-defunct super-size. From knowledge and experience, the most common size is the default medium size, 21 oz, which comes with the meal.

Hamburgers have also apparently exploded in girth, with the average size now at 12 oz, or .75 pounds. The Big Mac, unless things have changed recently, has two .1 oz patties (precooked weight, of course), plus the bun, lettuce, onions, pickles, cheese, and special sauce. The double quarter pounder, is well, .5 pounds of meat. It's also one of their largest items.

Yes, that's far too much knowledge of fast food sizing.

So, at least on the surface, the numbers seem like inaccurate, to say the least. The next question, at least to a lawyer, is what should McDonald's and the other fast food restaurants should do about it?

Well, a defamation suit is one option, but it's a stretch. McDonald's could allege that the CDC's false statements are harming their reputation, decreasing confidence in their brand, and inducing hostile or disagreeable opinions against the company and its food.

However, sovereign immunity would probably bar that exact cause of action. The Tort Claims Act of 1946 allowed lawsuits against the government with exceptions. Libel and slander, also known as defamation, are both exceptions, meaning a lawsuit under those theories is untenable.

That still doesn't mean the CDC should stop informing the public about portion control. The cause of promoting health and reducing the obesity epidemic is important, but it doesn't justify campaigns based on incomplete or inaccurate statistics. 

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