TCS Daily

The Battle of Hamburger Hill

By Joshua Livestro - April 27, 2006 12:00 AM

Ah, the strange paradox that is the European Commission. Where else would you find owners of four-wheel-drives claiming to fight for the environment? Or people earning astronomical salaries talking about equality as the cornerstone of the European social model? Staunch defenders of justice and fairness who serve as public prosecutor, judge and appeals panel all at the same time in anti-trust cases? (Ok, fair enough, apart from the latter, which is uniquely European, you can find them in every other political capital in the western world. But I'm trying to make a point here, so indulge me for a minute...)

Yes, the Commission is a place of paradoxes, and frankly, the Eurocrats wouldn't want it any other way. As they sit in Michelin-starred restaurants, washing down the foie gras with champagne, conversations among the Eurocrat heavyweights inevitably turn to the poor diet of the average European. Apparently, the great unwashed of the old continent eat pizza, fries, and even that most unspeakably vulgar American snack, the hamburger. The results are there for all to see: healthier populations, rising life expectancies, more balanced diets than previous generations and ... Wait! Wrong spin sheet! What I meant was: rising obesity levels, bordering on the epidemic!

You can easily imagine how the obesity molehill became a Mont Blanc-sized public policy mountain. A careful study of weight distribution charts drawn up by an anonymous committee of hardworking Eurocrats at the Luxembourg Statistical Office would have shown that approximately half of all Europeans are heavier than the average weight for their height category. In a small explanatory footnote, the authors would probably explain that, of course, this was only referring to statistical measures of overweight, and did not refer to any medical definitions of obesity. In other words, the top 50 percent were only overweight in the same way that the bottom 50 percent were underweight. What started as a statistical observation would then have become a political time bomb when an over-eager Eurocrat at DG Health in Brussels spotted the footnote: half of all Europeans are overweight! 200 million clinically obese healthcare consumers! The biggest health problem the world has ever faced! A hidden crisis, looming like a distant iceberg, ready to sink the European welfare state!

And of course, in Brussels, saying something is a problem means it requires political action, preferably at European level. Something needs to be done about it. But what? Surely not making Michelin star meals available to the masses? No, by all means let them eat burgers. But what sort of burgers? Aye, there's the (g)rub. And so Europe's policy-making elites have been busy preparing themselves for the battle of Hamburger Hill. It's being fought will all means possible, from the fair and the foul to the downright dirty.

Fair, I suppose (if you consider it fair to force people to spend time dealing with non-issues), are those initiatives that merely invite consumers and producers to work things out between themselves. I have mentioned here before several initiatives by the food and soft-drinks industry aimed at imposing a regime of self-regulation to address the issues raised by the European Commission in its Green Paper on food and drink. Soft-drinks producers offered to drop all advertising aimed at children under 12. They've also decided to remove vending machines from primary schools, and change the content of vending machines in secondary schools. The restaurant chain McDonald's recently introduced its own food labeling scheme.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely these measures will stop European policy-makers from taking matters into their own hands. Take the recent proposal by the Dutch Health Minister Hans Hoogervorst. In what we can only assume to be one of his more frivolous moments, Hoogervorst suggested forcing food outlets to reduce the size of the hamburgers they sell. It's an idea right out of the Soviet Union cookbook: the government issuing decrees on the maximum diameter of your burger (it makes you wonder what Hoogervorst would make of this initiative, by the way).

Others aim to shrink not the size of the average burger but the number of burgers sold. The way to achieve this aim is, apparently, to slap a big, fat tax on every burger sold -- a fat tax, if you like. In order to drum up support for this initiative, European politicians are even willing to sell the odd big fat lie, for instance when a British government minister claimed that no fewer than 900,000 people in his country were claiming incapacity benefit because of obesity, costing the British taxpayers a shocking £3.5 billion a year. Stunning figures indeed. Unfortunately, they were based on a small clerical error. The real figure, the minister in question, Lord Warner, later admitted in a press release, was not 900,000, but a rather less impressive 900. That's n-i-n-e h-u-n-d-r-e-d, a mere 899,100 fewer than first suggested. The real benefit costs of obesity were therefore approximately £3.5 billion less than the £3.5 billion mentioned above.

Never mind, though. After all, why let the facts get in the way of a good idea? In the pursuit of justice, truth will, unfortunately, sometimes have to take a back seat. And in the end, justice is what this is all about. Some European policy-makers are therefore now suggesting -- wait for it -- to imprison proprietors of food outlets who sell burgers that fall foul of new food legislation. If you think this sounds farfetched, think again. Last year, Denmark introduced just such a law to stop restaurants from selling burgers with more than 2 percent trans-fatty acids content. What on earth is so bad about 2.01 percent trans-fatty acids in a burger that it's worth sending someone to jail for, you may ask? Well, to be honest, I don't know. Neither does the Danish government, probably. But sending people to jail makes them look tough, and looking tough is what it's all about these days. So beware the European policy-making elites. They're ready to fight the battle for Hamburger Hill. And they're looking to take as many prisoners as they can.

Joshua Livestro is a TCS contributor.



Gotta love the Europeans
If it wasn't for the knuckleheaded ways I would have a lot less to laugh at these days. Think I'll make the drive to McDonalds just to show my support of the double quarter-pounder w/cheese.

Another name for socialist politicians
Another name for socialist politicians ... control freaks.

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