Spurlock Food Scare a Super Size Scam

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 McDonald's food each day for thirty 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 in 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 websites 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 McDonald's 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 McDonald's 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 McDonald's no longer calls its shakes "milkshakes" because they're all chemicals, and no milk. This is an urban legend. The primary ingredient in a McDonald's 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 McDonald's 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, McDonald's 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. McDonald's 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.

Radley Balko maintains the The Agitator weblog: http://www.agitatorweblog.com/

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