Clear Facts, “Simplified”

Rance Crain’s recent column in Advertising Age, entitled “FDA Cheerios Challenge Shows Rise of Third World Mentality,” maligns the Food and Drug Administration over its semi-recent (5 May 2009) warning to Cheerios maker General Mills over packaging claims.

He’s not nice about it. He cites the “archaic thinking” behind this “monumentally stupid case” as an example of the deterioration of the U.S. “to the mentality—if not the status—of a third -world country, where inertia and lockstep thinking rule the day.” Crain also takes a swipe at Obama’s “regulatory agencies [that] are stuck in the Dark Age” and suggests that drug companies may have “prodded the FDA to take action.” Strong stuff, but is it true?

As far as I can see, his argument is based on an oversimplified view of everything pertinent: the FDA’s warning, the health benefits of Cheerios, the laws, and who’s to blame for these laws not being enforced for 12 years (as claimed by General Mills).

His point seems to be that the FDA’s harassing of General Mills evidences an effort to keep Americans from living a lifestyle that involves eating healthful foods like Cheerios, directing us toward drug supplements instead (hence the meddling of drug companies). But if you actually read the FDA’s letter, you’ll see that their issue is that Cheerios is over-promising on its health benefits, to the point that the cereal “is promoted for conditions that cause it to be a drug because the product is intended for use in the prevention, mitigation, and treatment of disease” (emphasis added). The letter states that if all these claims are true, then Cheerios is created for the intent of preventing, mitigating, or treating disease. That sounds like a drug to me. The FDA simply wants more accurate promises on the packaging.

While the FDA’s letter is no bastion of clarity, I couldn’t understand how Crain could misconstrue the meaning so completely—until I checked a source he cites: The Wall Street Journal. The Journal‘s news article is accurate. But the Journal‘s related blog posting takes a different tack. Notice any difference in those headlines? The blog’s header completely misrepresents the FDA’s actual language, which never labels Cheerios as a drug. Regardless of how Crain developed his position, he’s not alone in taking it.

This “simplified” approach to fact reflected on the WSJ blog is the same one political opponents take when misquoting each other, and it’s disturbing to find in so reputed a vehicle as the Journal—even if it’s “just” on the blog page. On the other hand, the blog sure has a lot more comments than the article, including conspiracy theorists and vicious FDA haters with no spelling skills.

Maybe they did it just to boost their page views, but I sense something else: a Third World mentality of the press, which is being co-opted by political or financial forces to misrepresent truth for the benefit of those in power. Now that’s a story.

Ian Smith blogs for Gemstone Media, located in Boise, Idaho.


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