New York City’s mayor created a huge controversy recently with his proposal that all city restaurants, movie theaters, and push carts be prohibited from selling soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks larger than 16 ounces. The intent is to reduce the sugar intake among the city’s residents, and hopefully begin making a dent in skyrocketing obesity and Type 2 diabetes rates.
There is no question it is a well-intentioned proposal. More than half of New York’s residents are estimated to be overweight or obese. Obesity is linked to all kinds of dangerous conditions, and has become a huge problem especially among children.
While the New York proposal is the most dramatic public effort to limit sugary drinks, the effort has been under way for a couple years in other forms. The key word is “public.”
The problem doesn’t have to do with whether sugary drinks are bad for your health—sugar has been rightfully demonized by a growing number of scientists and public health experts as a prime cause of America’s exploding obesity problem, and resulting high levels of type 2 diabetes.
The problem has to do with the unintended side effects that come with a decision to ban one or another food, and in effect, criminalize its private consumption. We already have a few indications of potential problems in the case of sugary foods, as states and cities around the country have passed laws and implemented regulations limiting or eliminating entirely sugar-sweetened foods served in school lunches or available in school vending machines. In Massachusetts, there was an uproar recently when PTAs and other parent groups learned that bake sales would be banned in schools under reduced-sugar rules about to go into effect this summer. It took a rushed special act of the state legislature in May to exempt fund-raising bake sales from the prohibitions.
The whole food regulation thing becomes especially messy when the initiatives inevitably move into people’s homes. So we see in the school sugar bans, children are increasingly coming home with instructions about what is permitted in the meals or snacks they bring in from home. One child in a Massachusetts private school that prohibits all sugar-sweetened desserts had her jelly sandwich thrown out by a teacher after it was classified as a sweet dessert; so outraged were her parents that they are considering changing schools. The restrictions are spreading to other foods as well, with various public and private schools barring children from bringing in the old standby of peanut butter sandwiches, so as to “protect” the growing number of students who are allergic to it.
A different kind of private food ban has been initiated in Michigan, which as of April 1 made illegal a variety of heritage pig breeds favored by small farms, and their foodie and specialty chef customers. The state’s Department of Natural Resources labeled such pigs “feral”, contending they are a huge nuisance when allowed to run wild. With the backing of the state’s powerful pork industry, the DNR obtained a ban, forcing small farms to slaughter all their heritage breeds, and depriving Michigan consumers of the privilege to buy this favored food directly from farmers in private transactions.
If history is any indication, such bans, whether of sugar, peanut butter, pork, or other foods that offend or present a competitive challenge to one or another corporate producer, are almost certain to expand, and inevitably affect our private food choices. As restrictions expand, regulators will become ever more strident in their demonization of the foods in question.
Inevitably, some groups of consumers will get their backs up, determined to send their children to school with the peanut-butter-marshmallow fluff they so crave, or with soda sweetened by pure cane juice, which is thought to be less destructive than corn syrup. As such tests occur, enforcement will become ever tougher, as regulators become increasingly determined to “protect” us from the questionable foods, in effect, criminalizing those who choose to eat certain foods.
How can I be so sure? Because it is the scenario that has played out over the last century with our number-one restricted food: unpasteurized (raw) milk.
During the thirty years following World War II, more than half the states implemented bans on sale of unpasteurized milk, or severe restrictions that allowed it to be sold only from farms.
In the last few years, as raw milk has emerged as a perceived health food–to the extent that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found in a 2007 food survey that it was being consumed by possibly 3 per cent of the population—the FDA has led a tough enforcement campaign against production and consumption, including raids on small farms and private food clubs. Consumers determined to access raw milk continually test bans and restrictions by forming food clubs to transport it from farms to the city, or by buying shares in cows. In some states, like Michigan and Ohio, the herdshare arrangements are allowed. In others, like Maryland and New Jersey, they’re not. In those places, the trade moves underground, and the consumers become lawbreakers.
In Maine, a Food Sovereignty movement has taken hold, with more than half a dozen towns having passed ordinances allowing the private sale of food from farmers directly to consumers, outside of public regulation. The state of Maine has challenged the ordinances, though, by suing a one-cow farmer in one of the towns, arguing he can’t sell raw dairy without a state permit.
The expansion of food regulation into more foods will simply expand the conflict. We should have learned by now, from Prohibition, and more recently from the war on raw milk, that involving the government in the kitchen is a bad idea. Educating people about what’s healthy and unhealthy enables them to make wise choices.
David E. Gumpert reports and writes about health and food issues. He is the author of The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights, which includes a preface by Joel Salatin. His popular blog, The Complete Patient, has over the last five years been instrumental in launching a national discussion about government-imposed restrictions on the availability of nutrient-dense food and in highlighting an emerging debate over food rights.