Food is a part of politics. When a visiting dignitary comes to Washington, he or she is often whisked away for a quick and very public bite to eat. It’s not that there was nothing to eat on the plane. The restaurant trip is a photo-op. Political leaders with their sleeves rolled up sharing an all-American burger—that’s exactly the image both sides want. It shows that they really are buddies. The cameras click and the pictures make worldwide front-page news.
Last year, visiting Russian President Medvedev and President Obama made a choreographed journey to an Arlington, Virginia burger joint called Ray’s Hell Burger.
In March, British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the White House, and dutifully trudged off to an obligatory basketball game where he and the President posed with All-American hotdogs. Cameron was actually returning the favor. The President had done his junk-food duty at 10 Downing Street the previous year, when he and the Prime Minister posed for cameras serving sausage and barbecue to British and American service members and veterans.
All previous presidents have done the same. In 2007. President George W. Bush made visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy endure hot dogs and hamburgers at the President’s home in Maine.
The message is clear: We’re not elite snobs. We don’t eat arugula or brown rice. We’re regular guys, just like everyone else. We eat the same junk everyone else eats.
Now, it’s nobody’s business what a President or Prime Minister eats behind closed doors. If a political leader wants to tuck into junk food, light up a cigar, or have a stiff drink—that’s an entirely private matter.
But what does it say when the White House specifically chooses junk food for the photos it plans to send around the world? In my book, it says that someone in the White House has not yet read what the government’s own scientists are saying.
Hot dogs, burgers, and similar foods have been shown—by convincing scientific evidence—to be a major contributor to the epidemic of colorectal cancer that attacks more than 140,000 Americans every year, killing 50,000. Scientists have shown that when these processed meats or similar fare, like bacon, ham, and deli slices, hit the intestinal tract, a series of events is set in motion not unlike the effect of tobacco smoke on the lung. Cancer cells arise and start to spread. By the time colorectal cancer is detected, it is already incurable in half the cases.
By 2007, it was clear to everyone in the scientific world that hot dogs and burgers belong in the trash can. But in the diplomatic world, they are still front and center.
Guess who wins? The same food companies that spend millions to have their products placed in movies get far better product placement when the most photographed people in the world put their products on the evening news.
Who loses? Americans are the most out-of-shape, healthcare-needy population on the face of the Earth. Our cancer treatment centers can’t keep up with the diet-related disease burden they face, because our political leaders model the worst of nutritional ignorance. Our nation has not yet made up its mind that cancer is really worth fighting.
PCRM has asked both the American and British governments to take a stand against junk food. Just as political leaders have learned not to smoke on camera, they need to learn to role-model healthful foods, too. We hope that, in the future, visiting dignitaries will be treated to a healthy lunch in the White House dining room. Or if they head out for lunch, let’s hope they choose a veggie burger.Neal D. Barnard, MD, is the president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.