As we often point out, there are plenty of people who want to change what Americans eat, and almost as many ways to go about it. Sometimes regulators want to take a choice away, such as snacks in schools or foods containing trans fats. But the majority of mealtime interventions happen in more subtle ways. Mandatory ingredient (or ingredient-“free”) labels come to mind, as does the federal soft drink tax the Senate is now considering. But as long as the choices are still there, some regulators would ask what’s wrong with “steering” eaters toward the best one. Today, we’re sharing our thoughts on that question in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“Nudge” is a term to describe this approach of influencing choices without technically taking them away. It was popularized in a book co-authored by Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein, the new White House “regulatory czar.” As we mentioned back in January, Sunstein’s background as a radical animal rights activist raises some concerns about his new role at the helm of the most powerful regulatory agency in the federal government. But the Sunstein brand of “nudge” paternalism raises other concerns, as we told Times-Dispatch readers:
Government simply shouldn’t be deciding ahead of time which choices are best for us. Especially when it comes to food.
Despite years of trying, researchers have yet to pinpoint a diet that can make everyone healthy…
[And] the more emotionally charged our public food fights become, the more difficult it is to be impartial about which food choices are "best" for everyone. Whether it’s cutting greenhouse gas emissions, returning to our agricultural roots, or merely sticking it to "Big Food," meal planning is more of a political exercise than ever before.
Our new OIRA administrator knows this all too well. Sunstein has been an active participant in the politicization of food as a proponent of animal rights…
On Sunstein’s first official week at the helm of OIRA, it’s impossible to know exactly what’s coming down the pike. But as he takes up what has been aptly described in The New Republic as "the most important position that Americans know nothing about," we would be wise to start paying greater attention.
No matter how you slice it, giving government permission to nudge our dietary choices is a risky business. Especially when emotional philosophy drowns out sound science.