I’m going to try to keep sarcasm to a minimum in this post. I want to focus on exactly how food as such can be regulated. On purely practical terms, how could this work?
My jumping off point is an older post in the BBC that I have bookmarked, “Food should be regulated like tobacco, say campaigners,” where two organizations, Consumers International and World Obesity Foundation, “said governments around the world should impose compulsory rules for the food and drink industry.” They explicitly call for the food industry to be regulated like the tobacco industry. In the article, the following is cited as examples of regulation, though these are not represented to be a comprehensive list:
- adoption of more stringent rules
- pictures on food packaging of damage caused by obesity, similar to those on cigarette packets
- reducing the levels of salt, saturated fat and sugar in food
- improving food served in hospitals and schools
- imposing stricter advertising controls
- educating the public about healthy eating
- Artificial trans-fats should be removed from all food and drink products within five years
- Advertising to children, during television programmes such as the X-Factor, must be restricted
- Governments could review food prices, introduce taxes, change licensing controls and start new research to make this happen
The reasoning behind introducing these rules was also presented.
(Luke Upchurch at Consumers International) said: “We want to avoid a situation like the 1960s, where the tobacco industry were saying there is nothing wrong with cigarettes, they are good for our health, and 30 or 40 years later millions have died.
“If we don’t take action now, we are going to have the same intransigence and foot-dragging in the food industry.”
He said the new rules would be at the “highest level” of global agreement, meaning governments would be “legally required” to implement them, instead of being able to opt out, which he said was the situation at the moment.
OK, I’m going to try to set aside my skepticism of the unspoken agendas lurking below the water line and look at what can actually be regulated. In the article itself, there are two photos. One shows rows of pastries and baked treats of various kinds. The second shows a basket of fish and chips.
How can these two kinds of food be regulated? An obvious one would be outlawing the use of artificial trans-fats, which have traditionally been used in baking and in food frying. Let’s reduce the amount of salt. What of these products would have salt reduced? Probably those sold in frozen food aisles (Fish, chips) and in bakeries. What would the salt reduction be based on? Serving size? But what is a serving size? Each of these food items would need to be created in a standardized serving size – no bigger, no smaller, right? What if the fish filet is not big enough, or just an ounce/28g too large? Can you declare a standard size for all chocolate chip cookies? All custard tarts?
Sugar and fat reduction would also come under this. What is the maximum allowed sugar in a jelly-filled doughnut? How much fat can a shortbread cookie contain? A croissant? Is it based on a proportion of grams of fat to the total weight of the food item?
Let’s say that standardized food portions and salt/sugar/fat levels can be established for packaged foods in the grocery store. What about food that is sold at shops and eateries? Can you legislate the maximum serving size, salt, sugar and fat content of a meat patty sold at a restaurant? Can you regiment the dimensions of a slice of pizza, and define how much sauce made with what ingredients, can sit on a X-dimension crust, covered with Y grams of cheese that cannot contain more than a specified amount of salt, sugar or fat per serving, and how much of what toppings made to what precise nutrient specifications are allowed per serving? Eateries identified as fast food shops have made their fortunes on standardized servings, so they could probably pull it off.
Will you outlaw deep frying as a food preparation method in fast food eateries to reduce fat content? No more fried fries, onion rings, fish filets, chicken, mozzarella sticks, chicken nuggets, etc., only baked?
Are sodas even allowed? Sweetened teas? Coffee beverages that contain milk, cream, or sugar? A maximum amount of milk, cream and/or sugar per serving? And what about different sized cups? What if someone orders a cup that contains three servings, and then drinks all of it herself in one sitting?
What about independently owned eateries? Are all restaurants now required to post complete nutrition statements for each dish they serve, even the ones they invent that morning? Are up-scale restaurants required to reduce their meals to fit standard serving portions, such as no burger with an uncooked weight of greater than 4 ounces/113 grams, so that they abide by the same serving standards as fast food or down-scale (Denny’s, Coco’s, Appleby’s, Waffle House, etc.) eateries? If not, why not? Are food regulation laws going to be applied equally to all eateries, regardless of how “gourmet” they are?
What if a customer orders several servings and eats them all at once? Or consumes an entire package of cookies or bag of french fries or family size pizza in one sitting or even over the course of a day? We’re getting back to serving sizes again. What IS serving size? Is the serving size the maximum amount anyone should eat of a given food in a single sitting? What if someone buys three meals of fish and chips and takes them home to eat – is that person free to feed whatever amount of those meals to whomever is at home? Can the buyer put a large meal in front of a child? Why or why not? Is a food buyer free to take a frozen food of some kind and deep fry it? What if that person buys a fresh fish or chicken and takes it home and deep fries it? Deep fried artichokes, onions, tempura?
Let’s go back to groceries. If sugar, salt and fat are problematic in foods, how will foods like cheese, or butter, or cream, or cured meats, or nuts, or high-fat vegetables like avocados, be handled? Will cheese have to have salt and fat content reduced? Only be sold in clearly labeled serving sizes? What about highly marbled fresh meats? Can only lean meats be sold? What about bacon and sausage? If they contain salt, sugar and fat, don’t they need to be regulated? If not, why not? What about wheat flour and granulated sugar in the baking aisle? What if I make a pizza crust dough, cover it in a home-made tomato sauce that is loaded with salt and sugar, cover it in handfuls of full-fat mozzarella, and top it with sausage and pepperoni? Am I allowed to do that? Will the foods that contribute to this be taxed more heavily to dissuade me from purchasing the ingredients that can be combined to make this pizza?
If food production is a relatively fixed cost for the producer (fresh, perishable greens cost more per ounce than non-perishable dried pasta noodles, for example), are there alternatives besides “sin” taxes to make presumptively healthier foods less costly to the average consumer?
For warning labels, what foods are going to have them? Will gourmet restaurants have to put these pictures on their menus next to their high-calorie, high-salt, high-sugar offerings? If not, why not? I am obese. I become obese eating very “healthy” foods. Are warning pictures of diseased fat people going to be plastered on avocados? Cheese? Chicken? Salmon? One of the rationales for putting disturbing images on the sides of tobacco products is because when the product is used as directed, severe harm and even death can result. What about food products where consuming as directed (eating only an appropriate serving size) will not result in severe harm and death? How many food products are there that double-blind scientific studies have shown are harmful when consumed as directed? What then is the rationale for putting images on them? If the the problem is that people may consume them against direction (i.e., in excess of the suggested serving size and/or in combination with other foods that result in a dietary excess of salt, sugar, fat and calories), then shouldn’t all foods have these images on them? If not, why not?
When looking at foods and how they can be regulated, one thing stands out – the foods that already are labeled with nutritional information are the ones being singled out for increased regulation. Foods that are potentially just as damaging, but do not carry nutritional information that food critics can seize upon – food in upscale eateries, food in “craft” bakeries, breweries, cheese mongers, butcher/charcuterie shops, food that is not wrapped, food that has a cachet of being “gourmet”, food that is used by “foodies” to cook sumptuous and rich meals at home out of sight of a judgmental public – are going to be very difficult to flag and tag as “bad” simply by virtue of not being easy to wave about on a national TV show.
Food safety is something I am totally behind. Regulation of food production and handling, regular testing of food products for contaminants and pathogens, review of weights and measures, regulation of the wild west that is food supplements, and so forth, these are all clearly in the public’s best interest and are within the purview of the government to perform. I’m also behind a serious crack-down on advertisements aimed at children.
Better foods in hospitals and schools? Yay… except what will count as better? When someone’s diet comes from multiple sources, then the food provided in those locations needs to fit with the person’s broader nutritional profile – such as children whose only food of the day may be the breakfast and lunch at school. If that child need 1800 calories, and less than 300 will be provided at home (a slice of bread, half a snack size serving of Doritos), then the other 1500 needs to come from school. If you’ve decided that no school meal will be more than 400 calories, well, that kid now has a 700 calorie deficit for the day. You bet your ass she’s going to chug the bottomless Coke at the 7/11.
Removing artificial trans-fats is underway. Of course, unless the restaurant is checked by inspectors, I’ll never know when the unlabeled food has it slipped in.
But, when you look at just a few of the practical concerns about regulating foods for the purpose of controlling obesity, it becomes radically apparent that only foods that will easy to regulate neatly overlap the kinds of foods that people in lower socioeconomic brackets rely on to make ends meet. Whether intentional or not (and I very much believe it to be totally intentional – it’s not just corporations that do ugly things to helpless people), the call to regulate food in this way becomes another method by which people with money can buy their way out of social scrutiny and penalties.
The best way to regulate food is by paying attention to your own plate and stay out of your neighbors’ meals.