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Cheerios: An "Untested New Drug"

5 Post author: MBlume 15 May 2009 02:26AM

I found this letter from the US Food and Drug Administration to General Mills interesting. It appears on the surface that the agency is trying to protect the American public from ungrounded persuasion, yet I can't find anything in the letter claiming that GM has made an unsupported statement.

Does anyone understand this better than I do?

Comments (12)

Comment author: Yvain 15 May 2009 11:06:13AM *  152 points [-]

This is a beautiful example of politics at work.

Cheerios claims on its box that it can "lower your cholesterol four percent in six weeks". This is false. It is based on a "study" sponsored by General Mills where subjects took more than half their daily calories from Cheerios (apparently they ate nothing but Cheerios for two of their three daily meals). No one eating Cheerios in anything resembling a normal way would get close to this effect; therefore, it is false and misleading advertising. If General Mills wants to market Cheerios as a drug, it needs to meet the normal standards for drug evidence, and it doesn't.

So far, so good. Either you approve of the FDA's decision and think it's important to hold cereal companies to a high level of accuracy, or you think they should relax their standards and allow more leeway to food advertisers. Either one would be a legitimate response. But look at what happens:

A few sources correctly title the story, eg "Cheerios Aren't A Drug, FDA Says". The majority choose to go the other way and title it something more inflammatory like "Popular Cereal Is A Drug, US Food Watchdog Says", which is of course the opposite of what it said. It's the inflammatory outrageous headlines that get put on blogs and Reddit (now reworded further to "WTF? FDA says Cheerios are a drug")

Then all the usual suspects take the mistitled blown-out-of-proportion story and look to see whether or not this supports their preferred political narrative. For example:

Independent Institute (a libertarian think tank):

"The Obama administration blunders onward in its “progressive” (i.e., authoritarian) absurdities."

Freedom News Blitz ("The News Freedom Lovers Devour"):

"Do you get the feeling that since we are experiencing a severe recession, the Food and Drug Administration is running out of honest businesses to harass and persecute?...Certainly, it appears the old virtues of free enterprise, hard work, self-discipline, saving money, weighing the short-term consequences against the long-term consequences, etc. are unpalatable to the vast majority of people. So they allow the false promises of politicians, civic leaders and pseudo-intellectuals to mislead them.

So yes, we went from "please don't use poorly designed made-up studies to make spurious medical claims" to "hard work is unpalatable to the vast majority of people" in two steps. Remarkable, ne?

And then the media goes into one of its periodic vicious feedback loops and started reporting on the reporting, adding a little more liberal bent at each pass. From Reuters, here's Cheerios, Cereal of Liberty. The article starts with "Disputes over food-label claims are always political" and quickly moves onto "But the current, insane iteration of the American right has walked several steps past the crazy line...For them, wholesome, "American" foods are a-OK. Eurocommie foods are right out."

Three steps and now we're at "Eurocommie."

In the last phase of the decline from "reasonable question about cholesterol lowering properties of cereal" to "complete proof humankind as a species is doomed", someone opens the floodgates to Mordor and a horde of semi-human blog commenters swarm out, ready to add their "opinion" to the "discussion". From here and here:

"Ha - I guess the makers of the liver corroding, memory erasing cholesterol drugs, must have whined about this to their best friends, (the guys they pay off to legalize these poisons) the FDA."

"Sorry mister.g but you folks are delusional in the USA. You buy into everything and I mean everything. That is why you are the sickest, poorest industrialized economy going and you can inject GOLD into dog poop but it will still be dog poop. If you think it's worth eating to get to that golden nugget in the center you go right ahead. Unbelievable."

"Unapproved though (non-Obama worship) is not approved by your government overlords. Americas are too stupid to understand what is a cereal and what is a drug. You will be eliminated."

Four steps from "Don't lie about cholesterol on your cereal box, please," to "Obama will kill everyone who disagrees with him."

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 15 May 2009 04:21:47PM 16 points [-]

With all due credit to MBlume for raising the topic, I wish Yvain's comment here had been a top-level post. This is an excellent demonstration of the progression of the mind-killer effect.

Comment author: MBlume 15 May 2009 04:28:15PM 6 points [-]

agreed

Comment author: thomblake 15 May 2009 03:59:18PM 9 points [-]

off-topic, but good use of 'ne'. I applaud this.

Comment author: Raw_Power 15 November 2010 01:28:05PM 0 points [-]

You guys must be having fun living in the USA. Such disparities.

Comment author: grouchymusicologist 15 May 2009 04:29:39AM *  9 points [-]

Mark Kleiman, a blogger on public affairs, says:

So the FDA has what might be called the "quacks like a duck" rule: if you're going to claim some specific medical efficacy for your nutritional supplement or food product — that is, if you're going to market it as if it were a pharmaceutical — then you have to make a showing of safety and efficacy. If it's marketed as a drug, then its marketing is regulated as if it were drug marketing. Legally, a food sold as a treatment for a disease falls into the category of "drug."

General Mills, which makes Cheerios, has been marketing it as an aid to lowering cholesterol. The claim is quite specific: "You can lower your cholesterol by 4 per cent in six weeks." It's true that oat bran has some cholesterol-lowering effect. It's not true that eating Cheerios has been shown to be a safe and effective way of doing so, or that there's FDA-standard evidence for the quantitative claim.

I've bolded what appears to be the crucial bit.

Comment author: Annoyance 15 May 2009 04:34:52PM 4 points [-]

It appears on the surface that the agency is trying to protect the American public from ungrounded persuasion

True enough, but not very specific. It would seem to be trying to dissuade people from making specific medical claims about products without providing strong and scientifically-rigorous support.

As that's the intended function of the FDA, and a valuable one, I'd have to approve their action.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 09 January 2014 04:06:55PM 2 points [-]

This is reminding me of someone who argued against medical marijuana because "smoke isn't a drug". As argument from an irrelevant definition a named fallacy?

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 15 May 2009 05:46:24AM 1 point [-]

I don't thing this case is really their bread and butter, but on the FDA see FDA Review.