Opinionista Ivo Vegter 30 October 2012

Next: Gross-out warnings on food

A local food blog asked: "Junk food needs graphic warning labels similar to tobacco! Do you agree?" Well, thanks for asking, as opposed to just going ahead and lobbying Parliament with your inane idea. As it happens, I do not agree. And here’s why. By IVO VEGTER.

Canada, a bastion of nanny-statism at least in its major cities, is considering a new proposal. According to Toronto’s Globe and Mail, doctors in Ontario say so-called “junk food” needs graphic warning labels, just like tobacco.

It’s offensive enough on tobacco. Who doesn’t know that cigarettes are bad for you? Plastering disturbing images that wouldn’t have passed graphic violence censors in the old days all over cigarettes offends the intelligence of smokers. Worse, it reinforces rebellion. When some genius came out with a brand called Death, emblazoned with a skull and crossbones, they were just the coolest cigarettes ever. In any case, putting graphic warning labels on your smokes isn’t exactly the nicest thing the government can do to dissuade you from picking up the habit.

Now the health Nazis want to put nauseating pictures on actual food? 

According to the Globe, a paper in this month’s Ontario Medical Review argues that the success of anti-tobacco campaigns shows that there is now more tolerance for what may be perceived as manipulative or coercive measures.

That phrasing is very revealing, and it may even be true in petty-fascist Canada. But even more revealing is what comes next: “Unlike food, tobacco products are unique in that they have no safe level of use, but lessons can still be learned from the very significant reduction in smoking rates and the methodologies employed to achieve these.”

So they admit, at least, that tobacco and food are fundamentally different, and that moderate consumption of food will not cause undue harm. I can’t say I’m an expert on the biology of Canadians, but over here in Africa, most of us believe that moderate consumption of food is advisable if you wish to live a long, healthy life.

But no, the Canadians want to slap high taxes and graphic warning labels on what they term “junk food”. Clearly, over there, everything is bad for you, and every available surface is a good surface for a graphic warning. 

If this crazy idea gets picked up in South Africa, it’s the sort of thing I can see both the ANC and the DA getting behind, for lack of something more constructive and less invasive to do. 

I’m too skinny for my own good, so they propose to subject me to images of liposuction and gangrenous legs, or something, just to warn me that some people, under some conditions, that may or may not have anything to do with the food I’m eating, could end up suffering this fate?

Frankly, reducing my appetite by making my stomach turn would be more of a danger to my physical well-being than eating the odd hamburger.

Or take another couple I know. They both grew up poor and worked hard to claw their way up to the comfortable middle-class life they have now. They’ve always been frugal, and eating out was just not something you did in the ordinary course of events. For their birthdays, he likes pizza, and she likes fried chicken. Now the petty-fascist nannies want to put gross medical images on their birthday meals. These control freaks should get lost and mind their own damn business.

Even just defining junk food, or fast food, is tricky.

I can make a perfectly healthy tuna sandwich in about as much time as it takes a “fast food” restaurant to slap a burger with fries together. Does that make my food “fast”, and therefore unhealthy? 

I can point to any number of dishes, sauces and desserts at perfectly classy, expensive restaurants that would cause more heart attack or diabetes than a lifetime supply of chips and onion rings. Do they serve “junk food”? 

Why single out the very retail chains that have done so much to make quick and convenient meals available to the mass market for the nanny state’s jackbooted attention? Would the well-to-do busybodies also accept gory gross-out pictures on their pâtés, cream cheese, red wine and canapés? Or are they only proposing to dictate to the lower classes?

The truth is, if you consume enough calories and fail to take enough exercise, you’re likely to get fat. In response to Super Size Me, the tendentious anti-capitalist screed in which Morgan Spurlock blames McDonalds for making people fat, several critics demonstrated that the converse is also true. You can diet perfectly well eating only McDonald’s food. Absent a medical condition, it doesn’t really matter what you eat: if you consume enough calories without burning them, you’ll put on weight, and if you burn more than you consume, you’ll lose weight. There are exceptions to this crude generalisation, but the opposite claim, that junk food inevitably causes obesity, is quite simply false.

Besides, perpetuating the crude caricature of fat people as gluttons who can’t wait to stuff their greedy gobs with greasy junk is cruel. There are a lot of people who don’t fit this caricature, and are overweight despite their modest diets and self-restraint. Such people are deeply offended by the simplistic fallacies of health nuts.

There’s another fallacy that needs debunking. That is that private companies actually want to kill their customers. There’s no truth to this rumour. Nanny-state busybodies must either never have worked for a real company, or never to have taken the golden opportunity of proposing to poison or electrocute customers. If they had, they’d likely have discovered, to their dismay, that cold-hearted executives overrule such fun ideas, because the insatiable greed for profit is not well served by drastic measures that reduce market share.

If, without government regulations, greedy capitalists just pursue profit without caring about safety, how did Underwriters Laboratories, a private product and environmental safety testing facility with a high reputation, get to be 118 years old?

Of course, not everyone agrees that this non-profit organisation does good work. In an article in the Mises Institute’s monthly journal, written on the occasion of the lab’s centenary, Mark Thornton noted that some consider private sector self-regulation a cop-out, merely because it doesn’t impose unreasonable burdens on the market, bankrupt companies, or harm consumers. He also makes a good case why this view is mistaken, and why more restrictive government regulations might make products more expensive, but do little to make consumers safer.

Either way, the private insurance and legal industries have probably done more to foster a culture of over-cautious consumer safety than invasive and expensive nanny-state rules.

After famously losing a lawsuit over injuries sustained from a hot coffee spill, the fast food industry reduced the recommended serving temperature of coffee from an adequate 82°C to a lukewarm 55°C, and slapped a warning on the resulting slop, falsely describing it as “hot”.

Restaurants didn’t need the government to impose a law requiring it to warn customers that, duh, coffee is hot. All it took was one complainant and her lawyer. The free market works like that.

The danger, in fact, is not that there are too few safety warnings on consumer products, but that there are too many. How many people even pay attention to them any more?

There’s a hair colouring product out there that warns consumers not to use it as an ice cream topping. Matches might catch fire. Warning, this salt may be high in sodium. There’s the famous children’s stroller warning: remove child before folding for storage. Some brands of medicine will tell you to avoid it if you’re allergic to that brand of medicine. If you’re bored, there are many more like this.

Perhaps companies should just ignore the tort trolls and let evolution raise the average IQ of the gene pool by removing such labels. Back in the real world, however, one would have to grant that while many such lawsuits – and the resulting warnings – are frivolous, opportunistic, or evidence of stupidity on the part of the complainant, the process of keeping companies in line does work, entirely absent government intervention.

Yet, as if all these warning labels don’t go more than far enough, judgmental busybodies who think it is their business what other people eat want even more of them.

There’s just so much wrong with the idea of labelling junk food. They offend the intelligence of the average customer. They unnecessarily raise the price of convenient take-out food. They aim to inspire revulsion even in people who do not need the warning because they are reasonable people who enjoy their fast food in moderation. They reinforce cruel stereotypes of overweight people as gluttonous fast food junkies. They won’t work, because most people will just ignore them, and the few people who could use the advice would need such labels on most other food too.

So, to our local food bloggers, who live under the misconception that everyone has the leisure and prosperity to eat only the best food on the market, and the nanny-staters who think every perceived problem is an excuse for coercive government intervention, I say this: if you want to be neurotic about what you eat, fine. Go mad. But leave the rest of us and our guilty pleasures alone. DM


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