Supersize: America's biggest business
By Caitriona Palmer
Saturday November 26 2011
From the country that brought you the Big Mac, fried chicken and super-sized doughnuts, comes an exciting new menu item: the vegetable known as pizza.
This week the US Congress voted on a bill that will allow pizza served in school cafeterias to be counted as a vegetable, declaring that two tablespoons of tomato paste on a pizza slice will fulfil one daily portion of the vital nutrients needed for growth and stimulation.
The government's decision to declare pizza and French fries as vegetables came after intensive lobbying efforts by the food companies that produce frozen pizzas and by potato growers across America.
The announcement caused outrage amongst nutrition experts in the US who warn that the country's obesity levels are reaching epic proportions and that the powerful food industry is dictating what Americans should eat.
"The rates of childhood obesity have skyrocketed in the last 30 to 40 years in the United States," said Doctor Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. "It was extremely disappointing that the lobbyists for the big food companies that sell frozen pizza and frozen French fries to school, successfully lobbied enough members of congress.
"Frankly it's embarrassing," Dr Schwartz said. "It is ridiculous to be defending the right of French fries and pizza sauce to be counted as vegetables."
But in America, big people mean big business. And as American waistlines are expanding, American businesses are also adapting, with a range of products from supersized coffins to giant toilet seats.
Size XXXXL has become the new norm, and with over 20pc of Americans considered obese, there are fat profits to be made from fat people.
Take Big John Toilet Seats in California, a small company that makes supersized loo seats for supersized American bottoms. Company president Scott Kramer says that business is so good he can barely keep his super-seats in stock.
"We've been very successful in growing the business, particularly given the economy over the last few years," Kramer told the Weekend Review. "We've grown four to five times over the last four years."
In Lynn, Indiana, Goliath Caskets are selling at least five of their 'triple wide' 44-inch coffins every month so that oversized Americans can be sent to their eternal rest in broader comfort. Earlier this year the company began offering an even larger 52-inch-wide model that has already had several customers.
In the past 20 years, theatre seats across the country have widened by six inches to accommodate more ample rumps. Revolving doors have widened by two feet to 12 in the last decade. Weighing scales that used to stop at 300 pounds now measure up to 1,000.
Two-thirds of Americans -- more than 190 million people -- are now classified as overweight or obese, according to US government data, with the fattest Americans residing in Alabama, Mississippi and West Virginia.
Last year alone, Americans spent $3.9bn (€2.9bn) on cookies, $6.2bn (€4.6bn) on potato snacks and a staggering $37bn (€27.6bn) on cola products.
And the financial cost of a fat nation is even bigger: The US spends an estimated $147bn (€110bn) annually treating obesity-related illnesses.
Fast-food items are two to three times larger than when they first debuted in the 1950s. When it came on the market, the Big Mac contained just three ounces of meat. Now fast- food restaurants serve up 12-ounce patties loaded with 1,000 calories each. A small MacDonald's soda that once contained just seven ounces of liquid is now a hefty 16 ounces.
American buses and boats are groaning under the extra load, with federal officials increasing the average passenger weight from 150 pounds to 175 pounds for bus passengers. Airlines, too, are struggling to contain the extra weight and are demanding that obese passengers buy an extra seat if they cannot fasten their seatbelts or sit with both armrests down.
This week an American man spoke publicly about an ordeal earlier this year when he was forced to stand during a seven-hour flight from Alaska to Philadelphia because a morbidly obese man sitting next to him made it impossible for him to sit in his seat.
The 400-pound man who spilled over into Arthur Berkowitz's space apologised in advance saying: "I am your worst nightmare."
With the average American now weighing nearly two stone more than the recommended ideal body weight, local companies like Big John Toilet Seats -- "the little guys with the big seat" -- have risen admirably to the challenge.
With 75pc more sitting area than regular toilet seats and a one-to-two- inch rise to make it easier to get on and off, the Big John seat -- which can be fitted to a regular toilet bowl -- can hold a person weighing up to 60 stone.
Business has been so good that Kramer has designed other products to meet oversized customers' demands including wall-mounted toilet supports that prevent regular commercial toilets from breaking away from walls when used by morbidly obese individuals.
Next year, Mr Kramer's company will also introduce their latest project: a new tool designed to help the obese to self-administer the Heimlich manoeuver -- the upward abdominal thrust designed to dislodge food or a foreign object from a person's throat -- because many obese Americans are simply too large for others to get their arms around them, Kramer said.
"We believe that products that go to improve the lives of people of size are a blessing to people of larger sizes because we are often overlooked by mainstream companies," said Peggy Howell, spokesperson of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance -- a non-profit advocacy group in California that fights stigmatisation against larger Americans with a healthy dose of 'fattitude'.
Some American entrepreneurs, such as Bill Fabrey, who are making bigger products for America's bigger people began their commercial ventures after witnessing the struggles of friends or family members who are overweight.
Mr Fabrey founded his upstate New York company Amplestuff in 1988 when his then wife complained that she couldn't find a washing implement to reach all parts of her oversized body.
"We sat down and said there has to be things that exist to make a large person's life easier," Fabrey told the Weekend Review. "Society and the nature of being fat present you with all sorts of obstacles, not just plus-size clothes".
Mr Fabrey, a biomedical engineer by training, put his creative cap on and came up with the Ample Sponge; a wash-sponge with an extendable handle that has become one of Amplestuff's best-selling products.
Since then, Amplestuff -- which has sold many products via the internet to obese clients in Ireland -- has expanded to include extra-large clothes hangers, umbrellas, portable chairs and airline seatbelt extenders.
"It does my heart good to sell something to somebody who will now be able, for instance, to fly, and not get challenged by a snotty flight attendant who has an attitude about fat people," he said.
Mr Fabrey, who has been a decades' long pioneer in the 'fat acceptance' movement estimates that there are over two million people in America who weigh above thirty-five stone. His company allows many of these individuals, who live their lives in the shadows, to order products to make their lives a little easier.
"They are invisible," Mr Fabrey said. "They don't go out to the shopping mall. They don't want to be made fun of. They don't want to go out to a restaurant and sit in a chair for fear it will break and they will be humiliated."
But Mr Fabrey warns other companies riding the profitable wave that obesity-related industries can be a shaky market.
"This is a difficult market," Mr Fabrey said. "It is a market consisting of people who don't want to be in it. They all have this cherished wish that they are temporarily fat, so they don't want to buy something that would concede the fact that they are fat."
- Caitriona Palmer