The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that 36.5% of adults in the United States are obese, according to data gathered from 2011-2014.
This statistic has been steadily increasing since 1999 and many media outlets have claimed that the United States is in an obesity crisis.
So, what can we do to prevent this crisis?
Robert Paarlberg from The Chicago Tribune claims that “in the United States, we consistently stop short of using our most powerful policy instruments: taxes and regulations.” Beyond the obvious response (that the country already has a slew of regulations and taxes with the intent of increasing the quality of our food, and disincentives for sugary, high fat foods) Paarlberg’s article ignores the larger picture.
Not only have the enormous list of regulations on the food industry not stopped Americans from becoming increasingly obese, but our government has been the biggest contributor to decreasing our supply of quality food, and increasing the amount of cheap, unhealthy food that is available.
The war on our food started at the beginning of the 20th century with the passing of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which prohibited the sale of alcohol. Tyler Cowen (an American economist and writer) explains in his book, An Economist Gets Lunch, how the government’s prohibition of alcohol forced many top-quality restaurants to close their doors due to the instant cuts in revenue.
To put this into perspective, in 2011, the top restaurant in the country, Tao Las Vegas, made 75% of its sales from alcohol. Even when the U.S. is in a recession, people continue to drink, and rising unemployment has been shown to increase the amount of alcohol abuse.
Two years prior to the passing of the 18th Amendment, the country entered World War I; this increased the amount of women who had to become a part of the workforce. With less time to cook meals for the family, American mothers needed to find quick and cheap alternatives. This, combined with the consequences of prohibition, caused the quality, and the potential for quality, of food to take a sharp dive.
Prohibition ended in 1933, and in 1941, the U.S. entered World War II, so the restaurant industry never had a good chance to recover.
The next 20-30 years, after the war, saw a rise in fast food, with the founding of giants like McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Hardee’s.
In 1930, the Food and Drug Administration was formed, and a legacy of regulations on labeling and packaging food was created. Due to the increased cost of manufacturing, thanks to regulation, many businesses have had to decrease the quantity and quality of food we receive. Products filled with sugar and fat are cheaper to produce, but sacrifice any chance of it being healthy.
A 2015 study in Nutrition Journal found that the cost and the quality of food that a low-income consumer purchases is directly correlated, because cost is the largest factor when they decide what to buy. In addition, low-income households spend a larger part of their income on food. When the authors of this study asked Australian women what kinds of food they would purchase with 25% more income, they all listed foods with higher nutritional value.
The FDA may think that its actions are helping people become healthier and happier, but the added cost of regulation has hindered businesses from being able to create nutritious food.
One could argue that the FDA helps label our food to keep use safe from expired or unhealthy choices and is therefore worth the increased costs. However, data from the Food Marketing Institute shows that 70% of Americans would consider purchasing food past its “best by” date if it were discounted, they consider eating food past this date less risky than product tampering, pesticides, or GMO’s.
In regards to labeling rules, when participants were asked who assists them most in making healthy food choices, family, doctors, and friends far surpassed government institutions (more participants claimed the government institutions were working against them).
All that the excessive requirements (on labeling and the packaging of food) do, is increase the burden on food producers, and increase prices, which leads to consumers buying less healthy food.
Not only is the FDA decreasing the healthiness of our food, they are creating smaller portions that cost the same.
The Los Angeles Times reported on Jiffy peanut butter placing a divot in the bottom of their jars to decrease the amount of peanut butter while charging the same price. Customers that they interviewed called the decision “deceitful” and claimed “What these companies don’t realize is that their chronically deceptive marketing ploys tell us loud and clear that we absolutely cannot trust them for anything.” However, this is not deception, but a response to increasing prices and an effort to keep their products affordable in the face of further regulations.
In 2014, the demand for farmer’s markets increased by 78%, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture. These markets are unregulated by the FDA. Anne Alonzo, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator, even claimed “[farmer’s markets] bring urban and rural communities together while creating economic growth and increasing access to fresh, healthy foods.”
So, by her own statement, an unregulated market assists communities more than a food manufacturing giant who is subject to the regulations of the government. Citizens want affordable, fresh, and healthy food, and the FDA is acting outside of their interests.
Instead of blaming the business owners, whose ultimate goal is not to trick the consumer but to maintain the price of their product, maybe we should look at how the 15 government agencies that currently administer regulations on our food?
Maybe we should look at the Federal Reserve, which continually devalues our currency and increases the price of food?
Maybe, instead of assuming citizens can’t make healthy choices, we should allow them to suffer the consequences (or benefits) of not researching what they buy and taking risks?
Libertarians focus so much on the prolonged approval process for drugs by the FDA that we forget this administration also affects what we eat, and has for a long time. The obesity crisis is just another in a long list of problems created by government; who then propose regulations to fix the problems that were caused by regulation.
* Luke Henderson is a composer, economics enthusiast, and educator in St. Louis, Missouri. He is a budding Libertarian and joined the party in 2016.
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