For today’s cabal of paternalistic politicians and nutrition activists, the application of the “precautionary principle” in public health policy is the best thing since (trans fat-free) sliced bread. In a sound bite, it’s an easy sell: If something might be risky, ban it. But since everything involves risk — just in varying degrees — the principle is absurd (and a threat to food lovers everywhere).
It’s important to note the lack of a pesky “burden of proof” requirement in this process. Under the code, lawmakers can ban not just items proven to be deadly when used as intended, but any product that has the potential for harm. So instead of having to demonstrate that a food ingredient is actually toxic in the amount consumed by most people, activists can simply show that an ingredient is poisonous when, say, given to rodents at extraordinarily high levels (see California’s “Proposition 65”). This means that salt, water, caffeine, vitamins, and … well, just about anything could be outlawed by applying a modicum of "precaution."
That’s precisely the case in the latest example of bureaucratic “precaution.” Released this week, a British government report (“Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century”) outlines a smorgasbord of potential health risks and a regulatory fix for every last one. To address the health risk of “poor” diet, the report proposes:
restricting advertisements on “foods high in fat, salt and added sugar;” (For this purpose, the UK government has already pulled commercials for “risky” foods like cheddar cheese, raisins, cornflakes, honey.)
forcing food companies to change their recipes (though the report more delicately phrases this solution as “shifting the retail market towards foods that are lower in fat, salt and added sugar”); and
plastering restaurant menus with health warnings (Caution: Side effects of a good meal may include laughing, napping, relaxing, and generally enjoying yourself. Please consult with your doctor before ordering.)
Think that’s all? Not a chance. The 124-page report concludes with this forecast: “Looking ahead, food eaten outside the home is set to have a more prominent place in the debate about health and environmental issues in the food chain.” But the rest of us are actually “looking ahead” at Big Brother’s “more prominent place” in our food choices. Addressing the worrisome implications of this just-in-case approach to public policy, Trevor Butterworth, editor of the non-partisan Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), warns:
[Lawmakers] need to balance the risks of banning something against the risks of not banning something … [or] what seems, intuitively, to make sense may result in consequences far worse than the problem you were aiming to address.
In short: By exercising “precaution,” health officials will likely create far greater problems than the ones they solve.