Veggie of the Week - Food Regulation
sponsored by Coleman Farms
Suppose someone came up to you and asked if you knew what would happen if you jumped off a very high place, say, the Golden Gate bridge, and would you choose to or not? You'd probably answer "Yes, no". What if you were then told "You're wrong: you don't know, so your choice is uninformed and therefore meaningless."
What does this have to do with Veggie of the Week? In the article on food subsidies, we suggested that to blame so-called Big Food for the increase in obesity in the US was to suggest that - some - consumers had no free will. This provoked the following response:
"This is a fallacy, as it presupposes perfect efficiency of information. Or if you would prefer, you at minimum expose a bias. You chose a false conclusion, because in fact, in light of less than perfect knowledge of what a consumer’s food choice contains, the consumer does have diminished capacity to choose. This in turn having only tangentially to do with free will. Don't go there."
But what if Inquiring Minds want to know? I couldn't resist going. "Perfect efficiency of information" isn't a phrase I'm familiar with, but we'll assume it means the same as "complete (or perfect) information": the decider has access to all the information necessary to make a fully informed choice. So, back to the Golden Gate. We tell the evil demon that we do know what will happen if we jump - we'll be killed - and since there are things we want to do between now and then, that's enough reason not to jump. No, the demon says, you don't know what will happen - you don't know the temperature, barometric pressure, and dynamics of the 280 foot column of air you'll pass through, you don't know the density, temperature and surface condition of the surface you'll land on, you don't know about ship or bird traffic. All these are involved. You don't know, you can't meaningfully choose."
Back to eating. The column on subsidies mentions one choice, the choice to be fat or not. What do you need to know to make this choice? "Eating a lot makes you fat". That's all. There's no chemistry or physiology or any of that 'For Dummies' kind of stuff involved. You only need to know something that's been common knowledge ever since food at more than subsistence levels was available - ten millennia, at least. Probably more recent - maybe only two or three millennia - is the common knowledge that being fat is associated with certain unfavorable health consequences. This knowledge is in the public domain, it's not subject to manipulation by Big Food or even by the government. So that's how obesity is related to jumping off the Golden Gate bridge: it's a fully informed choice you can make on the basis of knowing very little, and that is common knowledge.
You won't be significantly less dead if your velocity at impact has been lessened by .05% due to especially dense humid air, or if the water is 58 degrees or 45, choppy or smooth. If your caloric input vastly exceeds your needs, you'll gain a lot of weight. It doesn't matter what the calories come from.
But wait, there's more. Not every choice is as simple - requiring only one piece of information - as the two above, and it may be rash to dismiss our commentor out of hand. Take diet, for example. A primitive diet tends to be a naturally balanced one - there's rarely very much of any one thing (except perhaps fruit and fish, in season) available, and when you've eaten the day's last grasshopper, you've got to fill up on miner's lettuce. It's different for us. You could live on potato chips, Fruit Vines and Seven Up, if you wanted to. Choosing to have a balanced diet requires two things: the information that it's probably more satisfactory in the long run than chips and Fruit Vines, which will drive your choice to change; and the nutritional information needed to balance your diet. You need to know a lot more than you do to avoid obesity and, depending on your background, some or much of it may not be common knowledge.
So here's a case for the sort of intervention we see in the nutrition education in our schools, which are supposed to make available the information to make informed choices about the specifics of diet; or, to use the commentor's words, to less diminish the consumer's ability to choose.
So far we've discussed general knowledge used to make general choices; knowing about specific foodstuffs - the bunch of radishes in your hand - may require knowledge of a different kind. Most obviously, there are the additives, the ones purposely added, such as BHA and Color 5, and the ones that just sort of sneak in, the -cides used in production and transportation, the elevated nitrate levels, the odd toxic germ species. Most of this stuff is unnatural and, without substantial lab work, undetectable. The germs are different - they're natural enough, but the ones that bother us occur naturally in animals, not plants, so their appearance in vegetables (which is what we talk about, remember?) is unnatural. And they're detectable - you're pretty sure to know when you've contracted food poisoning; but you really want a lab here, too.
This is how the government got involved in regulating food production. Industrial food production disassociated consumer and producer, so there was no way the consumer could know how his food had been treated and how safe it was to eat; the producer, often enough, didn't really care. There were scandals and hearings, which resulted in the establishment of standards and of an inspection regime to enforce them. This is a job the Federal government is in a good position to do: it has the funds, it has staff all over the place, it has lots of labs and scientists of all kinds it can call on, and over the last century, its role in regulating foods and food production has increased a lot.
The only problem is, their work isn't always reliable. The kindest explanation is that they've bit off more they can chew. The next kindest is incompetence: what large bureaucracy is free from this? And then, there's money. For whatever reason, or combination of reasons, there is, as I think our commentor is suggesting, a lot we don't know about our foods that it would be good to know. But this doesn't impinge on our free will, nor do we have "diminished capacity to choose." We can still choose to eat or not to eat Object X. If we know nothing about it, then we have diminished information, and our capacity to make an informed choice may be diminished, but not our capacity to choose. And, I suggest, we can make an informed choice: if we don't know all we think we should know about Object X before popping it into our mouth, then we choose not to do that. Having made that choice, we have one fewer item on our menu - we have diminished choice - but our ability to choose remains undiminished.
It is, I think, in the nature of governments to be easy to criticize, and it's particularly easy to criticize the food government, for its obvious lapses of competence and for its venality, but it has had its successes, and enough of these that it's now generally taken for granted as a guarantor of the quality of our food. However hard it tries, it's fallible, and in many ways, it seems to have stopped trying. Perhaps the greatest criticism of the government's role in food regulation is that for a long time it was successful enough that people lost the skeptical, critical attitude towards what they choose to eat, and towards the marketing, overt and subtle, which aims to direct their choice. You can follow their lead, or you can buy only when you know what you feel you need to know. The choice is yours.