Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions
Jazlyn Bradley was seven years old when McDonald’s worked its way into her life. Her family moved to a redbrick townhouse in Brooklyn, New York, only a block and a half from one of the restaurant chain’s locations, making it an easy stop for a quick bite to eat. Bradley loved to get the Happy Meal, the box’s golden arches opening to reveal a fragrant burger, fries, a cookie, and a toy. Some evenings, her father came home from work with armfuls of McDonald’s, the boxes and bags multiplying as the family grew. Bradley and her siblings—she was the second of ten—would leap upon these feasts, jostling for the last fry.
In the early days of her childhood, those McDonald’s nights were special occasions. The Bradleys’ dinners were mostly home-cooked, and she was the pickiest of the bunch. She did not like meat loaf. She did not like liver. She really did not like mashed potatoes, which her mother seemed incapable of imagining dinner without. With her brothers and sisters all happily eating their favorite foods, Bradley came up with a way to get what she liked, too. At dinnertime, she’d announce that she wasn’t all that hungry, which her mother would shrug off as an attempt to diet—Bradley had started to put on some weight. Ten minutes later, however, she’d be out the front door, sneaking down the block to McDonald’s.She used her allowance on these excursions, which led her to appreciate another of fast food’s charms. The larger sizes hardly cost any more than the small. Once she did the math, she ditched the Happy Meal for the Number Two: a pair of burgers for nearly the price of one. The same logic worked for the sodas and fries; getting the giant size only made sense.
By middle school, McDonald’s had become the first meal of Bradley’s day. She’d skip breakfast and lunch, but more than make up for it when school let out. She’d work the whole menu board, adding the biggest fries, the biggest shake, and a couple of pies to the twin burgers, and she’d double it all, intending—yet sometimes failing—to give the second meal to a friend or her youngest brother. At one point, she commuted to an after-school program in the Bronx, where she’d stop at another McDonald’s before heading back into the subway; there’d be a pile of empty wrappers on her lap by the time she reached her stop.
“I had one of those deep stomachs,” she told me. “I just loved to eat. I had a food affair. As a kid, I didn’t want that milk. I wanted burgers and French fries, or hot dogs and French fries. My mom would find cake wrappers under my bed, and even now, in the middle of the night, I’ll go and look in the refrigerator.”
In describing her eating habits, Bradley was touching on themes that people everywhere were grappling with in dealing with food and the trouble it could cause. She sensed that there was something going on inside her body to deepen her appetite, but she couldn’t nail down just what that might be. She felt passionate about food, but in a tawdry kind of way: an “affair,” as she called it. And it wasn’t any old thing that stole her heart; particular foods were uncanny in the way they attracted her. She despised potatoes, yet flipped for fries. She loved ground beef—if it arrived in a bun. She got full almost immediately at her mother’s table, but had never met a bag of fast-food takeout that was big enough to satiate her. What sense did any of that make? Moreover, when she was struck by the urge to eat—which could happen anytime during the day or the night, even if she was not really hungry, and in fact when she couldn’t be hungry, as when the cravinghit her right after a meal—the certainty that she would cave in to the impulse left her embarrassed. Thus, the wrappers stashed under the bed.
Bradley’s relationship to food was compelling, too, for how it changed over time. Where, as a young girl, eating could be pure joy —“I’d do a little shake when I ate”—a darkness had set in by the time she entered high school. She noticed how often she ate when she felt troubled. She began to use food to deal with issues, like, as the second oldest child, not getting the kind of attention she needed from her parents. She had asthma so severe that walking too fast would cause her to gasp, meaning exercise was out. Her weight edged up and down, but eventually reached 250 pounds at age sixteen. On her five-foot, six-inch frame, this pushed her beyond the plus sizes in clothing. Food was by no means the only challenge in Bradley’s life. She had dyslexia, which made school more difficult. Her family landed in a shelter for a time. Bradley had bouts of depression and loneliness, and when her family moved to a new neighborhood, she fiercely missed the friends she’d spent summers with out on the streets, eating ices and splashing in the water when the firefighters opened a hydrant. Yet she toughed it all out, or maybe those were the things that made her tough. Life hadn’t been easy for her thus far, but the day came when she got the chance to settle a score.
The Bradley family was friendly with an attorney named Samuel Hirsch, no stranger himself to the borough’s grit. Born in 1946 in an Austrian camp for people displaced by World War II, he moved with his family to Brooklyn, worked his way through law school, won a seat in the state assembly, joined a 1978 melee over the fatal stabbing of a Jewish man and got arrested for punching a cop (which he denied, and the case was dismissed), eked out a criminal practice defending members of the Mafia, and shifted gears to bring civil lawsuits on behalf of people who got hurt.
He represented Bradley and several of her siblings in a case that stemmed from the lead paint in their home. The legal claim was taking years to resolve, and Hirsch visited the family with some frequency, even bringing gifts on Christmas. In 2002, Hirsch asked Bradley, thenin her senior year of high school, if she would join him in a different sort of injury case. He was suing McDonald’s for ruining people’s health—not by accident or contamination, but through the very design of its products.
This would be a much harder fight than the lead suit, with less chance of success, he knew, starting with the fact that he had no experience in this type of claim. But then again, nobody did. The closest thing up until that point had been a case brought against McDonald’s for surreptitiously cooking its fries in beef fat, which the company settled not with a big payout to the plaintiff, but by donating $10 million to Hindu and vegetarian groups. Hirsch, however, was convinced that a case against McDonald’s on health grounds was potentially stronger, could possibly be lucrative, and would be significant for everyone, given the pain and suffering being caused by the modern diet.
An analysis from the U.S. surgeon general, which Hirsch cited in his court papers, estimated that obesity alone caused three hundred thousand premature deaths each year. Hirsch quoted him as well in warning that America’s eating habits “may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking,” with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, several types of cancer, and musculoskeletal disorders including osteoarthritis of the knee all linked to excessive and unhealthy eating. Even the economy was taking a hit, Hirsch noted. The annual bill for obesity had been calculated to be $117 billion in medical expenses and lost wages, part of the hidden cost passed on to consumers by the manufacturers of fast and heavily processed food.
Jazlyn Bradley had not been Hirsch’s first choice as a plaintiff for his attack on McDonald’s. He had initially filed the complaint on behalf of a 272-pound maintenance supervisor from Queens who lived on fast food. No one could argue that the man, Caesar Barber, wasn’t suffering from his weight. He’d had a pair of heart attacks already. But Barber was fifty-six years old, and when he blamed his troubles on his regimen of burgers and fries, he was an easy target for the tabloids and the food industry. “Fast Food Fatty Has Legal Beef,” read one of theheadlines. Even his sympathizers pointed out that a man of his age had to take some ownership of the choices he’d made in life. During an
appearance on Good Morning America, the host pressed, “Mr. Barber, you had two heart attacks, and your own doctor told you, ‘Don’t eat fast food,’ but you kept on eating it….Aren’t you responsible for this?” “Part of it, yes, I am responsible,” Barber replied, immediately
putting himself in a hole. “But I am saying, the part that they never explained to me was what I was eating, why they had so much sodium, so much fat content, so much sugar. I didn’t know that, and it wasn’t seen when you went into the restaurant. There was no alternative, so I ate it.”
Barber had a point, to be sure. In a few years, New York City would try to help people be more aware of what they were eating by requiring restaurants to divulge the calories in their products, and McDonald’s itself began selling salads as an alternative to burgers and fries. But Barber couldn’t get past the matter of personal responsibility and the case was foundering when Hirsch got a call from John Banzhaf, a Washington lawyer and something of a giant slayer. A few years earlier, in 1997, Banzhaf had helped engineer the legal assault that brought the tobacco industry to its knees. Rather than relying on individuals to sue the cigarette manufacturers for damaging their health, the new strategy involved states bringing lawsuits against the manufacturers for wrecking the budgets of the health agencies that had to care for all the sick smokers. This was a stroke of genius that framed the issue in dollars and cents instead of individual moral judgments, and in 1998, the tobacco companies caved. They agreed to curtail their worst marketing practices and spend $246 billion on measures to counteract the medical harm they had done. Encouraged by that success, Banzhaf and other tort-minded lawyers had been eyeing the $1.5 trillion processed food industry as their next big target when Hirsch brought his case on behalf of Barber and got hit by the media backlash. When they spoke, Banzhaf’s advice to Hirsch was blunt: Find a new client. Get someone who could not be flatly dismissed for having made bad decisions in life. Someone who was not in full control of their food choices. Someone who, frankly, was a lot younger than the middle-aged maintenance man. “If you want to establish a new legal principle, you want to get the strongest possible case you can, and you’ll probably be much more successful if you bring one on behalf of kids,” Banzhaf told Hirsch. “The jury is going to be much more sympathetic to an eight-year-old who’s obese than a fiftysix-year-old who’s obese.” That was when Hirsch thought of the girl from his lead-paint case.
Bradley’s family initially wavered when Hirsch asked her to join his cause. McDonald’s was surging past $15 billion in sales from more than 31,000 outlets in more than 100 countries. “This is a big company,” her mother warned. “They’re like part of the fast-food mafia. You really want to go after them?” Jazlyn worried, too, about the consequences on her day-to-day life. “I eat there every day,” she reminded herself. She had visions of walking into a McDonald’s after the lawsuit got filed only to have the workers and patrons alike fall silent and stare, recognizing her as the girl who wanted to take away their jobs and charms like the McFlurry. She had the sense from her own experience that many of the customers were emotionally bound to McDonald’s. That they were buying comfort as much as food, and that she’d be seen as picking on the poor, the lonely, the depressed. “They’re home looking at the TV,” she said. “They’re wanting what’s being advertised. They get up and go get that.”
Then, one afternoon, Bradley had a moment of painful clarity as she watched the talk show Maury, which aired a segment on overweight children.
Bradley suddenly realized that she wasn’t alone in this. Other kids, from other places and backgrounds, were suffering because of their relationship with food. By one count, three million new cases of childhood obesity arose each year, with the children encountering ailments that used to beset only adults: high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, the scarring of organs. Thirteen-year-old hearts looked like they belonged to fifty-year-old men. But what hit Bradley the hardest was the video clips of obese kids as they ate; that, she realized, was how she must look to others.
“There was a boy, sitting at a table stuffing his face, just stuffing hisface,” she said. “And my little brother said, ‘He’s mad fat. All he does is eat burgers. Nothin’ else.’ And you know how you get a light that goes snap? ‘That’s you,’ it said to me. I’m a fat kid and all I do is eat. I didn’t just sit there and eat everything all at once. But it reminded me of myself, and I said, ‘You know, let me see if I could at least help somebody else out.’ ” Turning off the TV, she was now able to see the lawsuit like Hirsch did: not only as a big payout, but as a cause, and one that went beyond herself.
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