Morgan Spurlock ate his way to fame last year, when he directed and starred in Super Size Me, a documentary that chronicled the consequences of eating only fast food for 30 days. Spurlock--who gained 25 pounds during the experiment--spearheaded the project after hearing fast-food industry executives criticize two obese sisters who had filed a lawsuit in August 2002 against McDonald's restaurants. In their complaint, the teenagers blamed the Golden Arches for serving them unhealthy food, which they said not only caused them to gain weight, but also created serious medical problems. Industry spokesmen denied the girls' claims, saying, "There's no way these girls can link this food to their illnesses or their weight gain.... Our food is nutritious."
OBESITY IS A NATIONAL CRISIS
The executives' denials shocked Spurlock. After all, the surgeon general of the United States, Dr. David Satcher, had just reported in December 2001 that obesity would soon surpass smoking as the leading cause of preventable death and disease in America. And although inactive lifestyles and overeating cause most obesity, Dr. Satcher condemned fast food as "a major culprit in the obesity epidemic."
Audiences watching Super Size Me see vivid proof of the side effects of overeating fast food. A picture of health when he began filming, Spurlock suffers headaches, nausea, and depression after only two weeks on the McFat diet, prompting his doctors to urge him to stop.
FAST FOOD ON TRIAL
To reverse the trend toward obesity, consumer advocates have filed personal injury lawsuits against fast-food chains. The case against McDonald's has seized the limelight. The plaintiffs must prove that the fast-food giant failed to inform the public about the potential ill-health effects from eating at McDonald's. The restaurant, on the other hand, must prove that the key issue is personal responsibility. In other words, the girls exercised their free will when they ate at McDonald's.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Sweet dismissed the lawsuit in January 2003, saying the teens should have known the consequences of overeating fast food. Referring to the plaintiffs, Sweet wrote, "It is not the place of the law to protect them from their own excesses." Nonetheless, an appeals court reinstated the case in January 2005.
THE JEWISH VIEW
As the controversial case proceeds, Jewish tradition can inform our opinions about personal and corporate responsibility. Personal responsibility is the foundation of Jewish law: "I have set before you the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life that you might live" (Devarim 30:19). Free choice, however, demands accurate information.
The American judicial system and Jewish law prohibit false and deceptive advertising. However, there is a difference between the two value systems. Under American law, once McDonald's provides consumers with complete nutritional information, the company has fulfilled its corporate responsibility.
Jewish law, on the other hand, introduces an additional standard of business practice that might forbid McDonald's from selling unhealthy food, even though they've warned consumers about potential dangers.
The Biblical principle lifnei iver lo titen mikhshol ("Do not put a stumbling block before the blind") (Vayikra19:14) requires more than just telling the truth, it prohibits selling something to customers that is harmful to them.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Does the principle of lifnei iver extend to the McFat case, even though eating fast food in moderation is safe?