TCS Daily

Food Police Mobilizing Again

By Nick Schulz - March 29, 2005 12:00 AM

The food police are on the march again from coast to coast, so you can expect personal responsibility and individual choice to get trampled. The incoherence of their regulatory rationale can be well understood through two recent developments.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal on Monday, a class action suit was filed in California against Kraft Foods, General Mills and Kellogg Co. for their marketing and sales of low-sugar cereals. The plaintiffs allege the cereals aren't, as the Journal put it, "any healthier than regular-sugar cereals."

And this month Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, announced that he will introduce legislation to regulate food advertising to children. This follows his teaming up last month with "Sesame Street"'s Elmo and Rosita to discuss the importance of good child nutrition.

It's ironic Sen. Harkin chose "Sesame Street" as a vehicle for indoctrinating youngsters on how they should eat. The popular show is well-known for its puppet dietary guru: the Cookie Monster ("'C' is for cookie and cookie is for me, yum yum yum").

What's more, the Sesame Workshop -- the media non-profit behind "Sesame Street" and other children's programming -- is able to broadcast its popular TV shows in part because it is sponsored by food companies such as Kellogg Co. and McDonald's. These companies sell products that, along with the Cookie Monster's eponymous treats, presumably would be targeted by Sen. Harkin's regulatory offensive.

Part of the Senator's food crusade is to push legislation empowering the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to regulate food consumption in schools and prohibit certain kinds of food advertising. The USDA is a surprising choice for such tasks. As the author Gary Taubes and others have demonstrated, the USDA's "food pyramid" -- the set of dietary guidelines that was created to tell Americans what and how much they should eat -- is highly controversial. Some have even suggested the USDA recommendations -- in particular the pyramid's emphasis that Americans consume more carbohydrates -- are responsible for any recent increase in the incidence of obesity in America.

Evidence for the controversial nature of their recommendations can be found in the California lawsuit where the plaintiffs finger -- you guessed it -- carbohydrates in the cereals as a villain.

So the USDA, the same food police in Washington that Sen. Harkin thinks is fit to regulate food consumption and advertising, is the same USDA that recommended increased consumption of carbohydrates, the cereal component that food police in California find so unsettling. When will the cops get their story straight?

Writing about the problems with the USDA guidelines last year ("Uncle Sam Wants You Fat"), the Cato Institute's Radley Balko asked, "[W]hy is the federal department responsible for the promotion of U.S. agriculture making dietary recommendations? Might there be conflicts of interests there?" Good questions, to which Harkin's plan adds this: Might there not be problems with that same agency also determining what advertisements kids see?

Advertising regulation and prohibition is the kind of political quick fix that may sound reasonable at first but does nothing fundamentally to address the problem it targets. Consider that Sweden has had restrictions on food advertising for a decade and yet its childhood obesity rates mirror those of other countries without restrictions. As Waldemar Ingdahl of Sweden's Eudoxa Institute has pointed out, despite the Scandinavian nation's additional draconian measures to regulate what its citizens eat through taxes and other government-imposed measures, Swedes are as round as other Europeans.

And as the former director of the Federal Trade Commission's Office of Policy Planning, Todd Zywicki, has highlighted, while kids may be heavier than they were a generation or two ago, they also spend less time in front of TV food ads than they previously did. They spend more time playing video games or in front of another screen -- the computer (look out Sony, Apple, Electronic Arts and others: you could be the next targets of child obesity crusaders).

Lastly, what's completely missing from the Sen. Harkin's approach and from the California plaintiffs bar is any appreciation of personal responsibility and individual choice as it relates to health. In Sen. Harkin's view, anything bad that happens to you is someone else's fault.

Meanwhile, even as U.S. senators and trial lawyers attempt to score points by playing the victim card, some food providers are championing personal responsibility, including in their advertisements. "Sesame Street" sponsor McDonald's recently launched a new ad campaign -- "it's what I eat, it's what I do" -- that stresses caloric balance and active lifestyles. Whether it's self-serving or not, it's sensible advice that, ironically, Sen. Harkin's proposed advertising ban would likely keep kids from hearing. What's more, consumers and public officials alike have demanded low-sugar versions of foods for years, with Sen. Harkin on the record blasting sugar in soft drinks. What happens to the incentives for other food and drink firms to provide consumers what they want if Kellogg or General Mills can become targets for frivolous lawsuits when they try to do so?

None of this may matter to the Senate's leading socialist and his fellow nanny-staters. Messages of individual accountability for health and well-being have little place in his world where Washington and trial attorneys are itching to take control of what you see and hear and what you eat.


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