TCS Daily

The Würst Kind of Logic

By Joel Bucher - October 27, 2004 12:00 AM

Renate Künast, Germany's consumer protection minister, wants to save a generation of Germans from obesity-related illness. She has told the Bundestag that 34 percent of all German children under 14 weigh too much for their size and age, and 8 percent are clinically obese. Some studies even show that German children are among the leanest of Europeans, but this is not the real issue.

Künast wants mandatory physical education and regimented school diet programs. Her plan to micromanage children's meals would even restrict the advertising of snacks and sweets on TV shows that cater to young audiences. In her world, only the government can save the children and only fast food and giant food companies are worthy of blame.

Most of the blame, says Künast, stems from the "subcutaneous" impact of advertising on parents by food companies who advertise "unhealthy" food in a way that fools parents into thinking they are buying "healthy" food for their children. Never mind that parents are unlikely to watch the TV advertising that Künast wants to restrict.

What exactly makes the food from the monolithic food industry so bad? Künast is not so specific. Making the grossest of generalities, Künast reveals in her damnation of manufactured foods a critical failure of logic. Although she connects the issue of obesity to big food companies and corporate advertising, she does not go so far as to explain why the calorie content of processed food is unhealthy compared to traditional German food.

Manufactured food can be high in additives, preservatives and otherwise, but German consumers freely choose labeled food from grocery store shelves. But is it true that processed or manufactured food generally has more calories on average than traditional German fare? Food with lower fat content is the most processed type of food, so how would Künast lower fat and calories across the board without added processing? It seems just as likely that German children may be getting fat on schnitzel and kuchen. German food can be heavy with fat and sugar. Does Künast expect that children can be forced to eat their vegetables? Moreover, should Künast want to affect the eating habits of children, she would have to monitor the free time of children to ensure that chocolate bars and other treats were not eaten in excess.

Critics have obviously made similar conclusions from thinking Künast's half-baked strategy to slim German youth through to its conclusion. Drawing comparisons to Nazi and Communist youth programs, Hans-Michael Goldmann of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) says this: "The whole thing raises an eerie specter, especially talk about mandatory PE and intimidating manufacturers into 'doing the right thing'. It frightens me." Goldmann should be frightened. Food can be obtained from anywhere, and only the one meal eaten at school could possibly be controlled. Bratwurst stands abound everywhere that serve up nothing but French fries and pork products. How will these calories be controlled? Would Künast have the gall to propose a würst tax?

We should not underestimate the ability of a culture to fix societal problems. Germans are infamous for telling people they are fat, whereas America has made such criticism taboo. Like it or not, the pressure to conform has a way of keeping people slim. So long as there is pressure to conform, cuisine will adapt to changing lifestyles. Low-fat food is only one example where the market has met society's needs. If German consumers want leaner food, manufacturers will eventually provide it.

Renate Künast, however, is advocating American-style, nanny state, regulation based on the assumption that all people have the same bodies. Indeed, one-size-fits-all regulation takes on a special meaning in Künast's vision. Any regulations would have to be based on some sort of budget for calories, but why should she assume that everyone would eat the same amount of calories, or that eating habits would not change in response to lower calorie food? When you take Künast's plan to its most absurd level of total caloric control, it begins to sound like something out of the Soviet era. But how could anything less actually succeed in eliminating childhood obesity?

The real danger is this: once a society believes that it can solve personal issues such as excess weight with regulation, the end result is that it actually loses control at the personal level. Should people simply eat worry-free once Künast has implemented her vision of caloric control? Regulation is thus not a solution, but a signal that either the culture or individuals must adjust to changing lifestyles. Blaming big corporations that sell only those products we want skirts the real cause of any obesity problem: us.

At a time when the German social system is in desperate need of overhaul, it seems counterproductive to diminish personal responsibility. Rather, it would be better to increase self reliance among the populace as opposed to experimenting with half-baked regulations addressing what may be only a temporary issue. If there is a problem with childhood obesity, only parents are in the position to change their behavior. Künast would be wise to forgo her regulatory dream and focus on educating parents.


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