The United Nations has a bureaucrat with the title Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, currently Belgian Olivier De Schutter. This might seem like the name of a mostly harmless office trying to reduce world hunger through aid, but if a late December report is any indication, the office wants state control of food. Not to ensure that people aren’t starving, mind you, but to take control of over six billion diets—even those of De Schutter’s pommes frites– and chocolate-eating compatriots.
Noted food-industry scold Marion Nestle recently reviewed the report and liked what she saw. That’s not surprising: The report called for fat taxes, food-ingredient regulations and advertising crackdowns. (Heard of the First Amendment, Marion?) Of course, all those policies come with complications that neither Nestle nor the UN bureaucrats considered.
Take the call for taxes on soda and so-called “HFSS” foods (foods high in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and sugar) to subsidize fruits and vegetables. Of course, if a saturated fat tax is anything like Denmark’s, omega-3 rich salmon and even cashews might get hit with penalties. Soda taxes too have drawbacks: They punish poorer consumers to yield insignificant weight loss—estimated by researchers to be about one pound over the course of a year.
Ingredient restrictions are another perennial favorite of the food police. Sure enough, the bureaucrats repeat the call to ban the use of trans fat and replace it with other oils. Of course, this can lead to unintended consequences—as the Girl Scouts found out when they replaced partially hydrogenated oil with palm oil and incurred the disapproval of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which had previously demanded the switch away from partially hydrogenated oils.
The Rapporteur also calls for draconian restrictions on food advertising. Even disregarding the effects those regulations might have on free speech, there’s no conclusive evidence advertising bans do anything to make people skinnier. In countries where bans on advertising have been tried (like Sweden) the obesity rates after many years were comparable to countries that had no bans. Remember, it’s not like Howdy Doody and Roy Rodgers flacking for sugary confections made 1950s kids fat.
The big problem is how the Rapporteur defines “right to food.” It’s not just having enough calories to eat, it’s having an “adequate diet providing all the nutritional elements an individual requires to live a healthy and active life, and the means to access them. States have a duty to protect the right to an adequate diet…. companies also have a responsibility to respect the right to adequate food.” In practice, this “right to food” is really a “right” to pay higher taxes, to allow government to dictate the ingredients of foods, and to silence companies based on dubious anti-corporate claims—so that citizens make the dietary choices that governments (or the UN) want them to make. Americans, however, have a history of resisting foreign attempts to regulate their food and beverage choices. We certainly hope that a little “revolutionary spirit” will help defend consumer choice against the global food cops.