car·riage re·turn

n. the lever or mechanism on a typewriter that would cause the cylinder on which the paper was held (the carriage) to return to the left margin of the page

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Regulatory Indigestion

The recent ban of trans fatty acids (commonly known as “trans fat”) by the City of New York is such a mockery of the American public and our system of government that it would require more space than I have available to address each flaw in the collective judgment of the New York City Board of Health.

The health effects of a quantitative intake of trans fat aren’t really debatable –once one considers the fact that until as recently as the early 1990s trans fat wasn’t viewed as a significant threat to the physical well-being of the ever-consuming public –but that really isn’t the issue I care to raise. If sufficient evidence indicates that trans fat is dangerous when consumed in significant quantities,I can understand a need to inform the public about the detrimental effects of a diet rich in trans fat. What I don’t agree with is the need to ban the consumption of it entirely.

What concerns me most,what annoyingly chafes my libertarian (please note the lowercase “L”) sensibilities,is that any government,no matter if it is city,state,or federal,feels it has the authority to legislate what may justifiably be consumed as food by the consenting populace. What we eat,beyond the questions of pesticides on produce and the handling of actual foodstuffs prior to the purchase by the consumer,should be matter of personal choice. With the exception for ensuring the general public is not poisoned by unsanitary conditions at the processing plants or during shipment,the essential freedoms engendered by the Bill of Rights should allow Americans the choice –whether ill-advised or not –the food they eat.

One can raise several questions which take into account various aspects where this freedom may be dangerous to the consumer,and naturally such situations require attention and appropriate action.

Nutritional education is essential and should be started at an early age. Schools have become the easiest way to disseminate such information,just as most schools now handle the sexual and drug-awareness education of children,matters once reserved to the attention (or inattention) of parents. While there is a dietary education system already in place for much of the country,the effectiveness of that program is certainly open to debate,especially as the rates of dietary-related disease continue to rise. I submit that this is a failure of the system as it stands and not an opening for the encroachment of the government into the civil liberties of Americans in regard to their food consumption. If an American citizen chooses a diet rich in fast food and other products of questionable nutritional value,it should merely be the duty of the government to inform that individual in advance,through prior education and requiring the posting of nutritional information by food purveyors,of the danger to their health posed by such activity.

Of course,there are children to consider,particularly children of parents incapable of providing them with proper nourishment. Unfortunately,with or without the trans fat legislation,this will always be the case until:a) an application and approval process is established for an official license to have children (which might not be such a bad idea after all),and b) a proper oversight and enforcement agency is developed to ensure all parents provide their children with the proper level of nutrition. The likelihood of either of these suggestions coming to fruition is of course minuscule at best.

I am amused when individuals develop a sense of self-righteousness about the “poison”in the food their children are exposed to and yet who would not stop to consider much of the mental poison that permeates our culture. In reality,which is more dangerous to the development of a child –the harmful ingredients in certain foods,or the glamorization of a life of crime,violence,abuse of women,and illicit drug use through certain types of popular music or motion pictures? As a parent,which would you rather give your child,a Krispy Kreme doughnut or the latest 50 Cent album? Which product is more dangerous? Which should be more strictly regulated?

As a matter of legality,we cannot ban 50 Cent and his cronies from making and selling albums because their rights to do so are protected under the First Amendment. They are using their freedom of speech to make an “artistic”statement in the form of music (although the musicality is considered open to debate by some). We can control,to an extent,the distribution of these products through a ratings system,but a complete ban on the expression of such “artists”would never hold up in court.

I suggest,then,that any company or individual involved in activity that would be endangered or altered by this trans fat ban file suit against the City of New York for a violation of their First Amendment rights. Common consensus is that culinarians –the bakers,butchers,chefs,and restaurateurs who provide us with the (edible) products of their self-expression –are artists of a certain degree. To infringe upon the artistic expression of an individual or group of individuals would constitute an unlawful suspension of such rights,particularly as it applies to the restaurant sector of the industry.

Why not parallel the regulation of the food and beverage industry with the “regulation”of the motion picture and music industries by developing a ratings scheme for food stuffs,restaurants,and bakeries? If that seems a daunting suggestion,I suggest that the enforcement of the trans fat ban hardly is an easy one,either.

A ratings system would not only allow the food providers the latitude to use whatever foodstuffs they required (with subsequent effect on their rating),but would create several niche business opportunities for restaurateurs interested in filling the demand for healthy eateries. A top rating in a variety of categories would be a selling point for chefs and restaurant owners,much as high scores in crash tests are for automobile manufacturers. The roll-out of such a ratings system would also be an opportunity for organizations like the FDA and American Heart Association to educate the public on their intake of the food available to them.

In the end it comes down to how much we care to allow the government to influence our lives. Do we tolerate regulations and legislation that provide a safety net for individuals incapable of fending for themselves,despite the restriction they create in the lives of the rest of the citizenry? Is there a certain level of food safety that we as a society need to ensure is met by all food providers,just as we require emissions and safety regulation for vehicles?

At what point do we draw the line,or do we continually allow the government the latitude to decide what is best for us,collectively,with no respect for our greater rights as individuals? When do we say that the needs of a group outweigh the rights of each individual?

Like it or not,this is about more than just food. This is another battleground in the struggle with the government for control over your body and your personal freedom.

1 comment to Regulatory Indigestion

  • Katie

    Oh,I don’t know about this one,Wyl.

    You posit the issue as one of a freedom of choice. An informed citizen has the right to choose whether to eat trans fats or not,similar to the movie “Thank You For Smoking,”where in the end the right to choose whether to smoke a cigarette was more valuable than the health benefits of an outright ban. Well,nobody says to herself,“I feel like eating a trans fat,”the way they might say,“I feel like smoking a cigarette.”They are choosing to eat a food that happens to have something very unhealthy in it. The situation is more akin to the food industry prior to the Pure Food and Drug Act –those unsanitary conditions you referred to,not to mention sawdust being used in foods,and snake oil medicines shilled by quacks. Sawdust is harmless –doesn’t the citizen have a right to eat those foods,however ill-advised? The snake oil won’t cure your pneumonia,but there are no poisons in it. It’s a lot cheaper than a real doctor,too. Doesn’t a citizen have the right to make that choice?

    Of course,this was long before labels and nutritional information were mandated,and so you say that now that we are better informed,we can make that choice. How well informed is the average McDonald’s consumer of what they are eating? When I was in there the other day,the nutritional info was printed in tiny,densely packed gray text on the back of the thin and ketchup-spattered tray liner. I gave up trying to read it after a minute. Is a tired mother whose children have been clamoring for a treat all day going to make that effort? In some cases,can she afford to?

    As for your 50 Cent analogy,well,you forget to mention the Parental Advisory label on all such CDs. Should we institute a similar program for foods? And really,“the lesser of two evils”is not the most inspiring of arguments.

    I agree that we should have the right to choose what we should eat. And for heaven’s sake,I had leftover Chinese food for breakfast,so I’m clearly no bastion of good dietary habits myself. But the free market and our country’s great wealth have created an environment where anyone can sell any kind of food,as much as you can buy,without requiring any sort of dietary balance. That’s their right,and that’s fine. I do think it fair,though,that we ask a little responsibility in what they’re selling. Trans fats are (almost) entirely man-made,have absolutely no nutritive benefit,and are indeed harmful. Just like those pesticides. Is it really so awful to restrict them?

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