Iain Murray: The fat is in the fire of America’s blame culture

Obese Americans are filing writs against restaurants that sold them fatty foods, meaning a campaign promoting US beef could backfire disastrously. By Iain Murray

The American cattleman is a creature of myth and legend. He has a big hat and bowed legs, and makes a jingling noise when he walks. High in the saddle, he can ride from sun-up to sundown. By the campfire at night he serenades his horse and no one thinks any the worse of him.

Sad it is, then, that this lonely, laconic hero is an unhappy man. There is a burr under his saddle, a louse in his Levi’s, a raspberry seed in his wisdom tooth. Astonishing to relate, home on the range there’s a discouraging word, and it’s this: Americans are not eating enough beef. They are, of course, eating. And how? At the last count some 60 per cent of the population were classed as clinically obese; but deep, crust-filled pizza, hot dogs, quarter pounders with cheese, Southern fried chicken, taco by the bucket, and soda by the quart are no substitute for home-reared, protein-packed T-bone steak. It’s what made America great and the cattleman content. However, as you might expect, when the skies are cloudy and grey the heirs of the son-of-a-gun pioneers who opened up the West are not the kind to sit around and spit moody streams of tobacco juice into antique cuspidors. Roused to a cause, they are self-reliant men of action. Not for them the emollient words of a simpering counsellor nor the analytical probing of a shrink. When the going gets tough the tough get going to Madison Avenue.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (Note that this politically correct age notwithstanding, these are cattlemen. Not for all the Annie Oakleys in Dakota are they cattlepersons.) has hired Leo Burnett to create a $3.5m (£2.3m) advertising and marketing campaign. The aim, says the association, is “to convince consumers to choose beef when grilling and to use their grills more often.”

The radio campaign unashamedly targets a male market. The voice-over intones, “You can see it when a man’s grillin’ a T-bone, the way his eyes glaze over, the way his chest puffs out, and the way he proudly announces, ‘Five minutes. Steak’s up in five minutes.’ “

Another says: “When a man steps outside and places a juicy steak on his grill, he makes an announcement to his neighbours. That savoury scent unravels down the street, reaches through their screen doors and windows, taps them on the shoulder, and tells them that someone, somewhere, is eating like a king tonight.”

According to Leonard Steiner, a food industry consultant, the campaign could work wonders. “If people eat an extra meal of beef, this will fix cattlemen’s problems very quickly.”

“Au contraire,” cry members of the American Quiche and Salad Eating Association. “Their problems could only be beginning.”

It is a truth, now universally acknowledged, that nothing that is eaten or drunk can be consumed without risk. Only last week members of the World Health Organisation held an emergency meeting following the discovery that chips and crisps cause cancer. Indeed, had food not been invented it would surely have been outlawed. And of all the lethal things we are wont to ingest, red meat, rich in saturated animal fats, has long been recognised as especially pernicious. Sooner or later, the American cattlemen can expect a writ.

They may yet regret that savoury scent that unravels down the street, taps the neighbours on the shoulder, and tells them that someone, somewhere, is having a cardiac arrest. Symptoms signalling the onset were plain to see – the way the eyes glazed over, the way the chest puffed out…

The risk of lawsuits cannot be put too high. The notion that any mishap or misfortune must be the responsibility of someone else, and that that someone should be made to pay, is now deeply rooted in the American consciousness, and the latest victims lining up for compensation are the chronically obese. It is strange but true that lawyers are assessing the prospects for class-action lawsuits against fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King. The logic is irrefutable: if they hadn’t sold you the fattening food you wouldn’t have eaten it. The possibility that you might have walked straight past the door and into a salad bar is just too far-fetched to entertain. In any case, didn’t McDonald’s advertise? Didn’t Burger King advertise? That amounts to an invitation to get sick. And now the cattlemen have advertised.

Never underestimate the power of an idea whose time has come: and in the US the idea is that foods blamed for obesity should be targeted remorselessly. Californian senators are proposing taxes on sweet fizzy drinks; schools are being instructed to stop serving pizza; restaurants are being encouraged to slim down their portions; and attorneys everywhere are rubbing their hands. The similarities with the early skirmishes in the long war against tobacco are too obvious to ignore.

But not every fattie wants to sue, some are proud to be the way they are. Recently they celebrated the tenth International No Diet Day with the message that health and fitness are what counts, not size.

At a rally in San Francisco, roly-poly, high-kicking cheerleaders waved pompoms and chanted: “Two-four-six-eight, we do not regurgitate. Three-five-seven-nine, love your body, it’s just fine.”

It was sight to gladden the eye of every red-blooded cattleman.


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