Foodies with a taste for regulation

I love Slashfood. It’s one of the best blogs around for news and reviews for foodies. Lately, however, I’ve been noticing a bit of a penchant for regulation among the writers. They don’t often write about law, but when they do they tend to take a very credulous view of what goals government can and should pursue. Scanning the archives of the past few months I find:

Jonathan Forester applauding a bill to require country of origin labels on meat, seafood, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Bob Sassone getting on board with NYC’s law requiring restaurants to post calorie info for their food.

Sassone, again, supporting Brookline, MA’s ban on trans fats.

Marisa McClellan expressing envy that residents of Seattle will soon, instead of just enjoying the option to compost their food waste, be required to do so — or at the very least pay for the service, whether or not they actually use it.

Sarah Gim thanking our safety regulations for the fact that we don’t eat cardboard snacks like the Chinese do. Though oops, that story was a hoax.

A quick glance at my older bookmarked links also shows Nicole Weston giving short shrift to the idea that restaurant owners should have the right to allow their patrons to smoke and Sassone (again!) opposing the liberalization of chocolate standards. In the same time period scanned above, there are a few posts that neutrally mention regulations. Only Joe DiStefano gets points for questioning regulators’ wisdom in a post lamenting a New Orleans area ban on taco trucks.

Slashfood isn’t a political blog so I don’t expect in depth policy analysis. Even so, the willingness of these writers to tell other people what to eat, how to label it, what not to smoke with it, and how to throw the scraps away is particularly regrettable given the numerous obstructions regulations already put in the path of foodies seeking good eats. Pasteurization laws deny Americans the pleasures of raw milk and cheese, Chicagoans can’t get foie gras, Alabamans are forbidden from purchasing strong beers, a few states still ban the direct shipment of wine, laws governing liquor are even more restrictive, trade barriers give us sodas made with HFCS instead of sugar cane, most absinthe is unjustifiably banned, Cuban cigars are embargoed, and it’s harder and harder to find places to enjoy good tobacco of any kind. Stretching to more indirect effects, we’ve got farm bills promoting homogenized, industrialized agriculture and ethanol subsidies diverting food to fuel. And if you count any number of narcotics as culinary delights, we’ve got a massive prison population behind bars just for consuming them. This is all just off the top of my head; with research I could go on and on. So why are some foodies so quick to support new mandates and restrictions?

I don’t want to pick a fight over all the posts cited above, but to examine just one example, let’s look at how unintended consequences undermine the New York calorie law. Seems like a harmless way to ensure that consumers have relevant information, right? But it’s not that simple. The measure requires businesses that were already posting some calorie information to post it more prominently, taking up valuable sign space. This has led some restaurants to remove the information altogether rather than deal with the burdensome regulation. The actual result in these cases is consumers who are less informed than they were before.

With just a little thought it’s easy to see that all of the ideas favored in the Slashfood posts could feature unintended consequences, increased costs, or excessive paternalism. I’m not saying the writers should all become die hard libertarians, but these things ought to be considered before supporting whatever new regulation is trendy at the moment. With all the ways government already interferes in foodies’ interests, I think by now a little a skepticism is in order.


3 thoughts on “Foodies with a taste for regulation”

  1. In general, I support regulation that tends to increase consumer knowledge while not harming consumer choice.* Most of the things you’ve listed are explicitly intended to remove choice, but a few of them, such as origin labels and making caloric info available, sound like good things to me. I’m sure that the relevant laws have been just as poorly written as other laws, and therefore lead to all sorts of negative consequences. But that doesn’t imply that the idea of forcing businesses to give consumers more information is wrong, it just means we need to make sure our legislators do a better job of how they implement those goals.

    Often the implementation is dictated by whatever special interest has drafted model legislation (can’t you see Subway giving NYC the bill requiring posting of calorie counts), and that is a problem. But the answer, in those cases, might be to regulate better, rather than to regulate less.

    *I recognize that one could argue that any regulation harms consumer choice, but that’s an ideological argument that will go nowhere here.

  2. I agree that that’s a valid distinction, but I’d still be aware of the increased costs that information requirements can impose. The meat labeling rule, for example, will require changes up and down the supply chain to keep track of everything. The industry claims the costs involved in doing this outweigh the benefits. Perhaps they’re wrong, but that’s an important consideration.

    If consumers really want information, there’s nothing stopping sellers from providing it. Look at how quickly products advertised lack of transfats or Adkins friendly ingredients when those concerns became popular. The same would probably be true for meat origins if many people truly cared. I suspect that most people don’t care that much, and that such a regulation would largely be to the benefit of foodies at the expense of the majority of buyers.

    That’s not to say that information markets are perfect, but I trust them more than I trust government regulators to correctly tune into consumer preferences.

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