Food Labeling: Say No To International Nannyism

U.S. negotiators are rumored to be taking the position that if the NAFTA treaty is to prescribe uniform food labeling among member countries, that labeling should be done along the lines of the current U.S. federal scheme, meant primarily to inform consumers rather than scare them away from bad-for-them-in-excess choices like ice cream and corn chips.  A front-page article in Wednesday’s New York Times is upset about that stance. Instead, the Times takes the principled position that labeling rules are best decided by each country under national law, and that transnational institutions, such as treaty organizations, should mostly keep their noses out of it absent some angle closely related to trade. 

Just kidding! That would be too sensible an objection. Instead, the Times takes the view that transnational meddling in food labeling is a fabulous idea when done by people it likes in the name of public health, but becomes bad when others get into the act, such as large American food makers or advocates of free-market policy. 

“Many public health officials,” the Times explains, now favor “the use of vivid warnings on foods with high levels of sugar, salt and fat.” It goes on to say that “public health experts” – even as its appeal to authority gets more explicit, its phrasing gets less specific – have hailed a new law in Chile that includes a “ban on the use of cartoon characters like Tony the Tiger” as well as a requirement for eye-catching warning symbols. 

The side favoring tougher regulation has been well organized for years at playing the international circuit, a fact the Times gives away by quoting in its NAFTA story advocates from an international public health charity in Australia and an anti-corporate campaign in Brussels. The U.N.’s World Health Organization (WHO), much swayed by transnational NGOs as well as by the views of the Guardian-reading and Times-subscribing class generally, has long demanded that member countries adopt more restrictive regulations on the marketing of food, drink and other products. In one memorable venture into the headlines recently, WHO called for the exclusion of children from movies in which smoking takes place, which might limit screenings of Pinocchio, 101 Dalmatians (Cruella DeVil!), Lord of the Rings, Little Mermaid, and Alice in Wonderland with its hookah-smoking caterpillar. 

Like international organizations, treaty administration bodies tend to draw for guidance on an elite stratum of professional diplomats, conference-goers, NGO and nonprofit specialists, and so forth, most of whom are relatively insulated from any pushback in public opinion. That might be a good reason to minimize the role of transnational panels in governance where not absolutely necessary. It is not a good reason to adopt the Times’s implicit position on lobbying for international standards, which is that it’s fine when done by our side but illegitimate when done by yours.