Queens Councilman Leroy Comrie's move to ban toys in Happy Meals is sure raising hackles. Comrie proposed that less-healthy Happy Meal options not contain toys. (The "Mighty Kids" meal with a double cheeseburger contains 820 calories and 34 grams of fat.) “I think it’s important to find a way to make a healthy lifestyle palatable and exciting," Comrie told Time. But there are those who dispute this, and one of them is The Atlantic's Hank Cardello, who this week penned an article titled "The War on Happiness: Leave Happy Meals Alone." Cardello is a former food executive with Coca-Cola and writes that Comrie has "attacked a piece of Americana" with this legislation, and "there is little to show that banning toys or taxing sodas or labeling menus with calories will reverse the nation's obesity epidemic." Funnily enough, that's very similar to the position McDonald's has taken!
Time quotes one of their executives as saying, "Taking away toys from kids' meals won't solve childhood obesity." Coincidence?
Cardello's Atlantic bio reveals that he is "a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute," a conservative think tank where IRS records show Scooter Libby made almost $200,000 in 2008. Cardello writes about fast food quite a bit for The Atlantic. On his personal website he writes, "government policy won't fix obesity" and that the solution lies with fast-food companies themselves: Food companies and restaurant chains "must trim their calories sold by 10% by the end of the decade." In addition, we should grant said companies tax relief for selling fewer calories and for doing "portion control" advertising.
So legislation won't do the trick, we should trust corporations, and we should give them tax breaks for helping solve childhood obesity. Huh. This position is echoed on the Hudson Insitute Obesity Solutions Initiative page, for which Cardello is the paid director: "Current policies under assessment include the deployment of tax incentives to lower the number of calories sold." Funnily enough, the Hudson Institute received donations from McDonald's as recently as 2002. (In 2004, the Hudson Institute ran a fairly pro-McDonald's article in response to Morgan Spurlock's documentary Super Size Me.)
We called the Hudson Institute to ask about the issue, but a rep told Grub Street that they have not been recipients of money from McDonald's in the last five years (a claim that we were not able to independently verify).
But Cardello has other links to McDonald's, too: The fast-food giant's former chief concept officer Tom Ryan blurbed Cardello's book Stuffed, saying, “Food companies would be more profitable and keep their customers longer if they adopted the ideas in Stuffed.” And McDonald's is a sponsor of the Global Obesity Business Forum hosted by the University of North Carolina, which attempts to "[help] the food industry fight obesity," and for which Cardello serves as the "Industry's Executive Partner."
Cardello also defends McDonald's twice on the "Myths and Realities" page of his website, contrasting it first favorably with Subway: "While chains such as Subway’s tout their fresher menus and highlight Jared Fogle’s losing 245 pounds by eating 2 subway sandwiches per day, once the mayo and sauces hit the bread, you’re likely to end up with more calories than a McDonald’s combo meal" and then again with Hardee's.
So why is The Atlantic running a story on McDonald's and childhood-obesity legislation written by someone who certainly appears to have a bias? We e-mailed to inquire about Cardello, and a representative replied to say, "The author tells us he has never received funding from McDonald’s." As for the Hudson Institute, they declined to release records of individual donors from 2010.
Why does all this matter? As Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School, told us, "If there's money supporting the research or the view [of] the party that's directly affected — in this case McDonald's and their Happy Meals — as the reader you need to know that."