Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sugar & Spice & Everything Nice?

We celebrate one fat man during these few December weeks each year. He’s big. He’s jolly. The commercialized St. Nick celebrates his girth and is rewarded globally with cookies and whole milk that help fuel his travels. Lucky for him he’s exempt from the encroaching limitations on our food intake.

I’ve struggled with weight for as long as I can remember. There are nutritional, emotional, physiological and emotional issues wrapped up in the struggle. I’m not alone. Nearly 30% of Americans are obese and the trend is moving upward. There are many causes that the CDC identifies, but the bottom line is ultimately simple input/output. If more calories are input than output then the pounds come on. I’ve spent decades trying to disprove this theory. Maybe Santa will let me be the exception this year?

The impact of obesity is tremendous on us individually and as a society. There are health issues that cost both in quality of life as well as economic matters that raise significant public policy questions. We should discuss those and come up with innovative solutions – including educating ourselves and kids with basic nutritional facts (like how input/output actually works). We could use some of the great American innovation and creativity to balance the temptations that exist year round. Instead of dialogue and education, politicians have answered with increased regulations.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg led the now nationwide charge. He required restaurants to cut out trans fat, made restaurant chains post calorie counts on their menus and now is trying to reduce salt by 25% in all foods.  Not to be outdone, Congress just passed a “Food Safety Bill.” With a name like that nobody should oppose it – because, really, who’s not in favor of food safety? The bill authorizes 4,000 new inspectors and thousands of new regulations. There is substantial consolidation of farms in the US with the majority corporately owned and operated. The few “family” farmers will be disproportionately impacted by these regulations. The bill enhances authority of the FDA to immediately close down businesses on “reason to believe” rather than the more strenuous existing “credible evidence” requirement. So if an inspector who has less than 40 hours of training thinks there’s a contamination they can shut down an entire business or industry without any substantive evidence. The result is likely to be a boon to administrators and regulators, more costs and fewer farmers with increased costs to the consumer with no noticeable change in food quality.

Los Angeles has now banned Fast Food restaurants. In 2008 the City Council put a moratorium on new outlets in the South Central part of the city, the poorest part of the City. Now no new fast food eatery can open with half a mile of another one in this part of the city. 800,000 residents are impacted.  This constituency which has severe economic limits on it now has lost choice. Los Angeles Unified Schools just this week authorized accepting corporate advertising to help underwrite the costs of sports, arts and other programs. Ironic that a potential source of funding for these programs has been outlawed.

New York is leaving no stone unturned and has banned Bake Sales. California is next with that ban and Congress has included a nationwide ban on sugary delights at schools as part of the “Food Safety Bill” as well. Coming up next: TSA-style check of lunch boxes? I pity the kid who smuggles in a ding-dong by accident. They’ll go on some watch-list no doubt…or maybe they’ll be sentenced to a cafeteria that only serves brussels sprout. I predict a huge black market for cookies and brownies.

Prohibition doesn’t work. It didn’t work in the 1920’s with booze. It hasn’t worked in the past 30 years with pot, cocaine or other drugs. A far better solution is to let the marketplace sort this out. If people are more apt to buy sugary convections instead of fruit – let them! If kids are eating too many cookies then let’s figure out how to have the Wii replaced with real baseball and football games. If there is such a public policy concern and we can’t educate or provide alternative solutions then tax the offending items and create an economic disincentive. From a no-tax Libertarian such a tax is more preferable to prohibition, closing businesses and massive regulation.

The fear is always that if the market is left to its own devices, especially with food, then the most horrific and nasty items will become ingredients to help out the bottom line. I’m not an anarchist. Obviously some level of regulation and oversight is needed to keep balance and integrity of the food supply. If a company engages in shenanigans they will be exposed by a vigilant media, blogosphere, regulatory environment and will suffer the consequence of the market by being put out of business.

We cannot legislate against risk. We cannot legislate behavior some don’t like. Santa can eat his cookies next week without fear of prosecution. I haven’t read the full “Food Safety” Bill though, so who knows.

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