Food Labels Kill

The FDA likes to claim that its warnings on packs of cigarettes have saved thousands of lives in the last five decades. That may be true, but the increasing number of premature deaths caused by its food labeling standards could potentially outweigh those lives saved. 

The issue is simple: The current food labelling standards provide a big nudge for people to eat less saturated fats and more carbohydrates, and an increasing body of scientific knowledge is telling us that this is a grievous mistake: saturated fats are much less deleterious to health than previously thought, while eating carbohydrates is the absolute worst thing that a person can do if he wants to control his weight. 

The steady increase in obesity over the last two decades, which social scientists have blamed on a variety of social ills like urban “food deserts” and duplicitous marketing strategies by food producers is, it appears, actually a direct result of government intervention in the market. The Wall Street Journal recently laid out a scathing indictment of the failure of food labels at protecting consumers. If thousands of people have likely died prematurely owing to this policy, why on earth is it still being enforced? 

And there’s been no sign that this administration is going to prod the FDA to fix this problem: In fact, Sam Batkins and I documented in a recent issue of Regulation that until a few months ago the FDA was trying to make delis and food trucks and other entities that sell semi-prepared food to come up with a way to provide their customers with the same dietary information that processed foods must provide. Only a concerted effort from the affected businesses managed to delay this rule–and a delay may be all it is, as the government said it would revisit the issue in the future. 

If president Obama were to repeal the food labeling regime immediately it would not be an admission of failure: His administration wasn’t the one that originally issued these rules–in fact, it was the George HW Bush Administration that made them more stringent. Inaction on this represents nothing but bureaucratic ossification. 

If a person were to approach the administration’s refusal to consider repealing this stupid rule from the perspective that class-based distinctions determine many actions in society today, here’s what he might conclude: Today it can be difficult at first blush to distinguish between the upper class coastal elites and the hoi polloi of flyover country. These days they don’t dress that much differently, smoking rates the last few years have fallen rapidly in the small towns and rural communities as well, and regional accents have largely gone by the wayside, so it can be difficult to distinguish at first blush between an Ivy League man and some bumpkin from Sheboygan.

However, the typical small town denizen is a couple of pants sizes bigger than his cosmopolitan counterpart and that’s difficult to hide and even more difficult to change. As long as we’ve got this handy-dandy way to separate the Sneetches, why mess with it? 

Suggesting such a thing would be the height of cynicism, of course. But the longer the FDA refuses to propose new labeling rules or their outright abolition, the more plausible it becomes.