In many ways, President Obama and his allies in Congress believe they know better than you do what is in your own best interest, but when it comes to policing the American diet, the Obama Administration takes the cake (quite literally). In an obscure provision of the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act, Congress ordered federal agencies to come up with a proposal for improving children’s diets and stemming the tide of childhood obesity. In pertinent part, Congress called for an Obama Administration working group “to conduct a study and develop recommendations for standards for the marketing of foods when such marketing targets children who are 17 years old or younger or when such food represents a significant component of the diets of children.” In short, Congress with the full support of the President, ordered federal agencies to propose to Congress a regulatory means for altering the American diet.
Regulators at the Federal Trade Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the United States Department of Agriculture convened an Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children. They recently proposed measures that would deny consumers the freedom to access fattening foods and would deny producers of those foods the freedom to advertise their gustatory benefits. They invite the industry to adopt the measures voluntarily before the IWG makes its formal recommendations to Congress.
Typical of this Administration, the recommendations are not that parents be given more information to make their own decisions concerning how best to regulate their children’s diets, instead the regulators favor measures that would restrict the kinds of foods that could be sold to children, the quantities of nutrients in foods that could be sold to children, and the advertising of products to children.
All too typical of the Obama Administration and its allies in Congress, the recommendations depend on removing sovereignty from the individual and placing it in government. Not one word appears in the proposal stating a single concern that the measures, whether implemented through agency coercion or Congressional legislation, might deprive Americans of freedom of choice. Not one word appears questioning the authority of the government to violate individual rights to liberty, speech, and property in pursuit of a public objective. Not one word appears revealing whether some in the population of children would suffer caloric deprivation or be unduly restricted in accessing needed foods by the recommendations. Instead, the IWG proposal leaps from a presumption of a universal problem to a conclusion that government needs to coerce private companies to abide by a new food code for children.
In the words of the IWG, its proposed recommendations are “designed to encourage children, through advertising and marketing, to choose foods that make a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet” and to “minimize consumption of foods with significant amounts of nutrients that could have a negative impact on health or weight—specifically sodium, saturated fat, trans fat, and added sugars.” The IWG pressures food manufacturers to comply with its recommendations by 2016, urging them not to market to children any food containing more than 1 gram of saturated fat per Reference Amount Customarily Consumed (RACC), any food containing trans fats, any food containing more than 13 grams of added sugars per RACC, and any food containing more than 210 mg of sodium per serving. Most commonly sold pizzas, Italian foods, ice cream, sugarized beverages, chocolates, cakes, and pastries would be off limits for kids under this schema.
The IWG recommendations include an enormous fault, even by other federal regulators own reckoning. As the FTC has touted for years, weight is a factor of two functions, caloric consumption and caloric expenditure. Consequently, if I choose to run five miles a day, my caloric expenditure will permit ingestion of far more calories than if I were totally sedentary. Therefore, the notion that restricting foods to kids will solve the food problem is a reckless, even unscientific, one. A boy on the wrestling, football, soccer, swimming, basketball, or track team can surely handle far more calories than the typical lad who chooses not to be athletic. In short, imposition of a coercive ban on foods is arbitrary and capricious because the caloric needs of any two individuals are not the same. Moreover, diet is a complex itself. If I choose to consume a bowl of ice cream for breakfast, nothing for lunch, a bowl of carrots for dinner that is likely to result in less weight gain than if I consume a bowl of ice cream for each meal, all other things considered equal. Consequently, if regulators coerce ice cream makers to alter the formulation of their products to include artificial ingredients having low calories and no sugar, they will deny the prudent consumer of ice cream fats and sugars he or she may need or enjoy for the sake of imprudent ones who happen to like to eat a lot of ice cream.
In the end, whether an American gorges himself on fattening and sugarized foods or not is no legitimate concern of the federal government and is entirely a matter for that individual to reconcile. If we cannot enjoy the freedom to determine what foods we ingest, we can hardly consider ourselves a free people.
If a family wants to eat pancakes for breakfast with lots of butter and sugar lathered atop them, that choice is rightfully theirs. To regulate the manufacturers of syrup, pancake batter, and butter to force them to limit the quantities of those products sold or to alter their composition to comply with the dictates of federal food police offends our most basic conceptions of sovereignty and liberty. It is tyranny.
In the end, we can envision a body of mildly plump bureaucrats with Ph.D.s in nutrition science, struggling over whether a twinkie should be permitted to be marketed or advertised; whether soda should be lawful in the market; or whether candy and cookies should be reformulated to be devoid of fat and sugar. Future news stories could read, local doughnut shop closed by order of the Food and Drug Administration for selling doughnuts that contain too much fat. Or, try this one, church picnic stopped by FDA agents when parent revealed that the menu included French fries containing quantities of fat forbidden by federal regulation.
There is an alternative to this highly paternalistic approach, the only one consistent with the Constitution: To trust in the American people to make their own food choices, if only well enough informed. Rather than presume that the federal government knows better than the typical American how to order the family diet, the better approach is to eliminate regulation denying consumers access to health information concerning the disease risk reducing and disease treatment effects of certain nutrients in foods and the corresponding disease promoting effects of certain other ingredients in foods. Were the federal government to end its censorship of health claims, the market could be replete with information aiding consumers in detail on the relative health benefits of foods. In that way, conscientious parents may make their own choices concerning how best to stock cupboards and prepare meals. They would proceed in an environment of freedom, rather than one of restraint.
Thomas Jefferson wisely explained, “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.” The Obama Administration and its allies in Congress so abhor individual freedom of choice and so believe in state paternalism that they cannot help but attempt to dictate the most basic of decisions, including what’s for dinner. Their approach is more appropriately called slavery. It is indeed ironic that a man who had slaves for ancestors would endeavor to enslave the American people through the power of the regulatory state.