Ben Kallos' Self-Righteous Charade at Health Hearing

The Health Committee held a hearing the other day to discuss a bill that would regulate the nutritional content of kids’ meals that come with an “incentive.” Basically, McDonald’s Happy Meals are the target, though the law would apply to all restaurants.

Ben Kallos is the sponsor of the bill, and Corey Johnson (chair of Health) is a co-sponsor. The administration testified in opposition to the measure, and said it would be impossible to carry out, because most restaurants in the city are not chains, and don’t have to track their specific caloric and fat content. Also, what constitutes an incentive? How about a placemat for kids to color on while they wait for their meals?

Things got fun when a representative from McDonald’s testified. Dr. Cynthia Goody is the chief nutritionist for McDonald’s, and naturally enough, also testified against the measure. She explained that McDonald’s has changed its advertising practices and no longer promotes soda as a choice for its kids’ meals, though it is still available. She detailed additions to the menu that McDonald’s has made, in order to offer children better alternatives in the way of fruit and fat-free milk, etc. The basic takeaway if you read between the lines was that if they made Happy Meals any healthier (low fat, low sugar, whole-grains) then no one would get them, and people would just order for their kids from the regular menu. Pretty much what you expect: no one is forced to go to McDonald’s, and no one who goes there is under the illusion that they are eating health food.

Corey Johnson asked Dr. Goody some basic questions and pushed back on her statements in a normal way. Then he turned the questioning over to Ben Kallos, who instantly began grilling the panel (which also included some small business C-of-C types) in the most excruciatingly hostile terms imaginable.

“Do you receive money from McDonald’s or its franchisees?” he asked. “Do you support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour?”

Dr. Goody was nonplussed, and said that as a nutritionist she didn’t have any expertise on the question of wages. Kallos pressed her: “As a nutritionist do you think people who make $15 an hour instead of eight, nine or ten dollars an hour will have more money to spend on healthy food?”

Kallos ripped into Goody’s use of an anodyne motto: “What about health programming? There was specific testimony on point saying…’if you eat, move your feet,’ so what is McDonald’s doing in local communities to help give local children a place other than McDonald’s to congregate?” As though, in addition to having a monopoly on food service in New York City, McDonald’s also owns the Parks Department.

He then asked about McDonald’s lobbying efforts and expenditures, and demanded that someone explain why McDonald’s had spent more than $500,000 over five years lobbying the city. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” replied Goody. “I’m a nutritionist and I am here to talk about the bill.”

Kallos was undeterred, and insisted that he needed to know why McDonald’s was lobbying against the bill when Burger King and Wendy’s aren’t. He needed to know why McDonald’s spends so much on lobbying generally, and also demanded to know how much McDonald’s spends on advertising in the New York City market. Again, the nutritionist said she didn’t know anything about that.

Kallos asked, “Who else is here from McDonald’s?” He ordered Dr. Goody to tell him the names and titles of her colleagues, and then asked one of them to come forward to answer specific questions about McDonald’s ad budget and marketing strategies. The man brushed it off, stating that he isn’t authorized to speak publically on such matters. Kallos pompously announced, “so let the record show” that McDonald’s was not answering his questions.

The questioning went on like this for another ten minutes, with Kallos asking a wide range of answerless questions of a private corporate witness who was giving voluntary testimony. He was relentlessly sarcastic, and hectored the nutritionist about some program called “Kids LiveWell” that Wendy’s has signed onto, until Johnson whispered to him to move on.

Sorry for belaboring the point here: the Council has no oversight over McDonald’s. The witnesses were taking the same position as the administration in opposing the bill. None of the McDonald’s witnesses had been sworn in. Ben Kallos does not have subpoena power over McDonald’s, and had not summoned its representatives before him while he conducted a wide-ranging plenary investigation of the restaurant’s activities. He was just abusing a nutritionist and pointlessly grandstanding, as though he were Robert F. Kennedy yelling at Jimmy Hoffa at the McClellan Senate hearings. At one point he even said, “the whole world is watching.”

We see this kind of grandiosity in hearings on occasion. Sometimes councilmembers get confused or carried away and forget that they are only allowed to berate and insult members of the administration. Even that is embarrassing when it happens, but when councilmembers start harassing members of the public, it is like watching a dog chase a car: it wouldn’t know what to do if it caught it.