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Should you be prosecuted for feeding junk food to your child?

 By Charles Foster

Fast food permanently reduces children’s IQ, a recent and unsurprising study reports.

What should be done? The answer is ethically and legally simple. Parents who feed their children junk food, knowing of the attendant risks, are child-abusers, and should be prosecuted. If you hit a child, bruising it, you are guilty of a criminal offence. A bruise on a child’s leg is of far less lasting significance than the brain damage produced by requiring a child to ingest toxic junk. A child injured by a negligent or malicious parent can also bring civil proceedings against the parent.

The findings of the recent study mirror those in other jurisdictions. And now that they have been widely disseminated it will be hard for parents to plead ignorance.

It is said that junk food consumption is disproportionately high in lower socio-economic groups. Whether or not that’s true, it is not (subject to one caveat), a reason not to criminalise the practice of child-poisoning. The caveat is economic: if it really were the case that parents mis-fed their children because they couldn’t afford to feed them properly, it would of course be wrong to stigmatise them. But I doubt that’s really the case. People mis-feed their children out of ignorance (until now), and lazy habit.

The forensic reality is, of course, that it’s going to be difficult to characterise the administration of a bowl of MSG  as a chemical assault, or to squeeze it within the definition of an offence such as s. 23 of the Offence Against the Person Act 1861 –  which prohibits the unlawful and malicious administration of a poison or other destructive or noxious thing so as to endanger life or to inflict grievous bodily harm. But surely it’s a kind of child neglect.

Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 provides, inter alia:

(1)If any person who has attained the age of sixteen years and has responsibility for any child or young person under that age, wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons, or exposes him, or causes or procures him to be assaulted, ill-treated, neglected, abandoned, or exposed, in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to health (including injury to or loss of sight, or hearing, or limb, or organ of the body, and any mental derangement), that person shall be guilty of [an offence] …..

(2)For the purposes of this section—

(a)a parent or other person legally liable to maintain a child or young person, or the legal guardian of a child or young person, shall be deemed to have neglected him in a manner likely to cause injury to his health if he has failed to provide adequate food….. or if, having been unable otherwise to provide such food….. he has failed to take steps to procure it to be provided under the enactments applicable in that behalf….’

It seems that junk food causes ‘injury to health’ within the meaning of s. 1(1). That’s all you need for a conviction. More legally contentious is subsection (2). The cited portion is aimed at preventing malnutrition, but one might, just, argue that junk food is not ‘adequate’, within the meaning of s. 1(2). If so, few potential defendants will be able to take comfort from s. 1(2), since decent food will generally be easily available.

In short, the burger and fries might be a matter for the police.

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26 Comment on this post

  1. Anthony Drinkwater

    Good luck with your first prosecution, Charles.
    I’m sure you’re right but, without falling into consequentialism, what good would it do? I wonder whether it wouldn’t be the same as fighting the “war on drugs” by criminalising the small-time user or pusher…..

  2. Even if it is not likely to be a legal matter it might still become a matter of public morality. Parents who drink or smoke around their children today often face disapproval even when their behaviour is not extreme enough to actually be viewed as child endangerment or neglect: it is seen as bad for the child, and hence behaving that way makes them a bad person. Some of that disapproval may occasionally be more generic disapproval of the practice (or parent) that is rationalized by the child issue, but I think there is a degree of real concern in most cases. We know it is bad.

    Whether that kind of soft power is enough to reduce junk food giving among parents is another question. I suspect that disapproval has indeed reduced the amount of smoke and alcohol children are exposed to, but junk food also has practical benefits (ease of getting, generally liked by picky kids) that would counterbalance the force of disapproval and parental concern.

  3. Hmm. I’m not sure this is so clear cut. I think that parenting decisions, and culpability for putting children in harm’s way would seem to fall out along a spectrum. Some clearly fine (here’s an apple). Some clearly abuse (punch in the face). And something like providing low quality food? Seems to me that this falls into the harder to define middle of the spectrum. Another example to consider – what about letting kids participate in sport -this clearly is associated with risk of harm; Similar harm, even, if you consider things like concussions from youth soccer. Does allowing participation in soccer=child abuse? (point being, life can be complex and fraught w/perils…path to avoiding harms isn’t always obvious to everyone.) Your analysis also doesn’t seem to consider the amount present in the kid’s diets. Is there a diff between guilt for occasional fast food vs subjecting kids to a diet consisting entirely or mostly of crap? Finally, I think there’s some public health data around efforts to combat food desserts that suggest that shifting communities to healthier foods goes beyond addressing ignorance and laziness…

    1. Alan, many thanks. I agree that it doesn’t necessary follow that there should be legal sanction (or even the sanction of moral disapproval) wherever a parent puts a child in harm’s way. Participation in certain games is a good example. But one gets something from games. Eating junk food is all bad. It’s not as if one has to eat it in order to participate in any activity or culture worth having.

    2. Khalid. Thank you. But I don’t share your pessimism. People can change. And even if the evidence that they can is slender, that’s not a reason to give up the whole ethical project.

  4. It is much easier to live in isolation, eat what one grows than to aimlessly fight or confront the food industry: it is not the parent or the parents, but the entire system that is decayed to the bone. Thus, applying moral language to a diseased mind will not produce any fruitful results; the disease needs curing.

  5. Principal-agent problem. Going hard after the agent is not usually a practical solution, since the costs get passed onto the principal. It’s endemic in welfare policy – parents with weak parenting skills damage the life prospects of their kids in a bunch of ways. If heavy-handed interventions were costless for the principal then arresting parents for feeding junk food/not reading to their kids/letting their kids play truant/etc might be a good approach. But in practice the costs of heavy-handed interventions are usually quite high, so everyone loses.

    So my answer is “no, bad idea” because whatever damage is done to the kids by junk food is small compared to the damage done to them by seeing the state lock their parents up for the sake of a Happy Meal.

    1. Agreed. Rather than targetting the parents, the target should be advertisers that themselves target children. And, I believe, there have indeed been restrictions put in place in the UK to limit such advertising. Of course, if parents are incredibly neglectful regarding diet, then it will be better to remove the child and put them up for adoption. I don’t exactly know at what point this should occur, but currently there are thousands of children waiting to be adopted in the UK so we should be careful about adding to this number.

      1. Dave. Thank you. Of course one shouldn’t flood the prisons. But a few prosecutions of extreme offenders, pour encourager les autres, combined with an expressivist statement on the statute book, might do wonders.

      2. Juergen: many thanks. Surely if parents are incapable (whether cognitively or for any other reason) of bringing up children without damaging them, they should have the responsibility taken from them? This isn’t a eugenicist statement, but a statement of the (I’d have thought uncontroversial) orthodoxy of child protection. In relation to the prosecution of junk food feeders, profoundly cognitively impaired people may well not have the necessary mens rea, but even if they do, it’s very unlikely to be in the public interest to prosecute them. But I really don’t think you need much information-processing power to realise that junk food damages a child, and not much more to obtain reasonable alternatives to junk food. There are few real excuses, and so there should be few real offences.

  6. juergen martin moeller

    The answer is ethically and legally easy? I am not sure.
    If a couple has IQ 85 each, should they have no right to get children?
    Sure they will feed them with junk food.
    Should we go back to bad old eugenics to prevent this?
    We should not, I am sure.

  7. Anders: many thanks. Realistically the law in this area is only ever likely to be primarily an agent of that ‘soft power’. But potentially a useful one.

  8. Daniel S. Goldberg

    In the comments, I see that the OP has moved from endorsing prosecution of parents who feed their children junk food writ large to “a few prosecutions of extreme offenders,” which obviously makes the general point more reasonable.

    But to follow-up on Alan Regenberg’s point, the social epidemiology of risky health behaviors in general — including poor nutrition — is generally well-established, with a social gradient of such behaviors tracking closely general social gradients of health. The more materially deprived and otherwise-disadvantaged are disproportionately more likely to eat poorly and have their children eat poorly, which IMO dramatically undermines the assertion in the original post that people feed their children junk food out of ignorance and laziness. Moreover, the premise that disadvantaged and vulnerable families are simply ignorant of good eating habits is generally unsupported by the literature, which also shows that individualized health education/promotion programs targeted at educating high-risk groups are also by and large ineffective. This is unsurprising for two reasons: first, because it reinforces the idea that structural, macrosocial factors are much stronger determinants of individual behavior than methodologically individualist models typically allow — in which case agentic interventions targeted far down the causal pathway are unlikely to succeed — and second because it suggests that a lack of basic information on what constitutes healthy eating is simply not a root cause of major problems of poor nutrition and/or food insecurity.

    In addition, even if none of the above were true, it does not follow that the stigmatisation of parents who feed their children junk food is morally permissible, since stigma might well be seen to be morally unacceptable even where it produces salubrious public health consequences, a point which public health ethicists have been discussing for some time.

    None of the above should be taken as a total denial of the existence of human agency in the face of this particular or any other risky health behavior. Even people in terrible life situations frequently have some measure of agency in terms of making better or worse decisions. But the evidence that went undiscussed in the original post suggests the amazing power of social and economic conditions in structuring the range of choices disadvantaged populations have, and also suggests reasons for doubting that across a population of severely disadvantaged people we should be surprised when health hazards (including risky behaviours) proliferate more than in the affluent.

    Speaking as a lawyer as well, I would suggest that until we deal with these profound problems of distribution and disadvantage, and the ways in which they seem to concentrate the proliferation of risky behaviors among those who experience such problems most intensely, legal prosecution is an ethically suboptimal choice, one that actually intensifies the clusters of disadvantage we should be concerned about rather than attempting to remedy them. Such a choice also reifies the notion that resolving population-wide health problems is a matter of intervening on individual choices and bodies rather than on the structural features of political economy that overwhelming evidence suggests are the prime determinants of health and its distribution in human societies.


    1. Daniel,
      Many thanks.
      You say: ‘The more materially deprived and otherwise-disadvantaged are disproportionately more likely to eat poorly and have their children eat poorly, which IMO dramatically undermines the assertion in the original post that people feed their children junk food out of ignorance and laziness.’
      Well, the observation in the first part of the sentence doesn’t support the conclusion in the second part. It might be, for the sake of argument, that people are materially deprived because they are ignorant and lazy.
      You go on to say: ‘Moreover, the premise that disadvantaged and vulnerable families are simply ignorant of good eating habits is generally unsupported by the literature, which also shows that individualized health education/promotion programs targeted at educating high-risk groups are also by and large ineffective.’ If true, these seem to me to be two rather good reasons for stigmatising even materially deprived people who feed their children junk food (unless, as I agreed in the original post, it is financially impossible to obtain good food). If materially deprived people know what’s good and bad, they can’t plead lack of mens rea, and if other health promotion schemes don’t work, it might suggest that you need something more draconian, such as a legal sanction.

  9. Daniel S. Goldberg


    I’ll reply once more, and then give you the final word:

    Yes, of course it could be true that people are materially deprived because they are ignorant and lazy. But IMO it turns out not to be true. Here also there is an enormous amount of evidence suggesting that the staggering wealth and status inequities within and between nations are driven by international political economies, concentrations and abuses of power and wealth — all the usual Marxist critiques. Thus, I would say that the premise you adduce is false, at least in the aggregate (some people may be materially deprived because they are ignorant and lazy, but ignorance and laziness fails to account for the immense and inequitable patterns of material deprivation we see).

    I do not understand your second point. If it is the case that the conditions which result in disadvantaged groups’ material deprivation are the prime causal factor in their poor nutrition, it certainly does not follow that stigmatising their habits is going to be effective (let alone morally justified). We either fix the conditions that seem generative of poor eating habits, or we do not. But if these conditions are indeed the prime causal factor, personal stigmatisation is no answer at all. Moreover, it is undisputed that stigmatising people for poor eating habits is counterproductive — it worsens such habits and increases obesity, for example. And finally, none of this addresses my point that even if it were entirely effective it might still be unethical. (In fact, I think it is).

    Thanks for the interesting discussion.

  10. Daniel: very many thanks. On the first point, I don’t disagree significantly with your Marxist rejoinder. I was just pointing out a non-sequitur.
    On the second point: What conditions are ‘generative of poor eating habits’? There are only three that I can see: (a) Ignorance, (b) Wilful refusal to do anything about the known facts – which I’d summarise as laziness, and (c) an inability – and probably a financial inability – to feed properly. I’m perfectly happy to assume that the materially disadvantaged know very well what they’re doing when they feed their child junk. That increases their culpability. You don’t like the diagnosis ‘lazy’? Fine: neither do I. Financial inability? Hardly, in most modern western places. Junk costs more or less the same as decent stuff.
    You say it’s undisputed that stimatising poor people for poor eating habits is counter-productive? Well, I’m disputing it. Existing disincentives haven’t worked, true. So perhaps it’s time for something a bit more robust.

  11. Charles,
    Thank you for the interesting post.

    Daniel’s comments suggest that the problem is largely one of unequal material distribution. However, UK statistics indicate that while those who are poorer do have higher levels of obesity, the differences across socioeconomic strata are less than one (or at least I) might expect. Children in the highest income quintiles are less likely to be obese (eg. 14% in the highest two quintiles for boys) than those in the lowest quintiles (20% in the lowest quintile for boys), but there is still a significant problem amongst the materially advantaged. Whether the redistribution of wealth would make a positive difference to the overall childhood obesity figures (17.1% of boys and 14.8% girls <16), or would just cause a rejuggling of levels across the quintiles, is difficult to predict. (It may of course be desirable to redistribute wealth for many other reasons).

    If Junk Food Providing Parents (JFPP) were to be prosecuted how would such a system work? Assuming that obese children don't get to be in that physical condition through eating apples and nut roast, and that they amount to approximately 1.5 million children, this would indicate the potential for an awful lot of prosecutions of JFPP. Or perhaps, as you seemed to indicate, prosecution would be reserved for the superbad JFPP, whose child is morbidly obese.

    If found guilty, what would be the material punishment – a fine (hardly seems worth the fuss unless it is substantial in which case the materially disadvantaged couldn't pay), a custodial sentence, the loss of their children either temporarily or permanently? What is the purpose of the sentence – is it punitive, deterrant, or rehabilitative, or for the protection of society?

    It seems reasonable to suggest that ultimately what happens should be done in the (perceived) best interests of the child. While overfeeding with junk food can rightly be construed as abuse, it is not necessarily the same as physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Admittedly, it does put the child at risk of developing substantial harm, but on the other hand it is possible to imagine that many parents and obese children could have an emotionally stable and functional relationship. I suppose one could try to point out the error of their ways and, on the premise that parents who really did love their children would change their diet, prosecute those who refused to comply on the basis that they must be 'bad' parents. However, few parents probably ever achieve ideal standards of parenthood. Unless there is evidence of malicious intent to cause harm, it seems difficult to make the case that prosecuting JFPP would provide an overall benefit to the child if the sanction entails a loss of financial wealth or an enforced separation.
    Perhaps, rather than criminalising parents and stigmatizing children, it might be more advantageous to increase efforts at making junk food a less attractive proposition, through punitive fat, salt and sugar taxes and a ban on advertising.

  12. Barry’s idea of taxes and bans on advertising strike me as much more sensible sanctions than legislative prohibitions and arrests. Habitual use of junk food when obese strikes me as similar to smoking even though you know it’s not good for you. And we don’t think it’s rational to simply criminalize tobacco and arrest smokers. We do tax the hell out of it, restrict consumption in some spaces and restrict advertising of tobacco products. Governments have a variety of tools at their disposal, if they think creatively enough, and there’s no reason why why they should straight from comparatively laissez faire policies to the most punitive policies they can think of, without exploring a range of sanctions in between. [Regrettably, though, it’s very common these days given the rise of single issue campaigns.]

  13. Barry and Dave: many thanks. I think there would be some value in having a law on the statute book permitting such prosecutions even if no or very few prosecutions were ever launched. Expressivism matters. It has, of course, never been the case (and should never be the case) that the UK authorities prosecute everyone who has technically committed an offence. There is, rightly, prosecutorial discretion. A prosecution will only be started if it is in the public interest to do so. In this context one would want to target parents who had been warned about JF feeding but who had continued to feed JF. Another factor in favour of prosecution would be being plainly rich enough to buy the most opulent organic alternatives.
    Dave: I agree that the tendency to rush from the laissez faire to the punitive is common and dangerous. But what, in this context, is in the middle ground?

  14. Should you be prosecuted for feeding junk food to your child?


    This Stupid Question Exist Because The AGENT Owns All CHILDREN And The AGENT Feeds SOCIETY JUNK FOOD!

    ~1. Refer To All Birth Certificates. The Child Is Bonded Against A Lien Through The TREASURY Now Owned By The CORPORATION No Longer ‘Owned’ By The Parents Stolen By The Registrar.

    ~2. Why Does JUNK FOOD EXIST With The Codex Alimentarius Set Up By The Agent To Kill People Through Statutory Banking Stock For Profitable Collaboration With Monsanto & McDonalds?


    So Why Does This Stupid Question Exist To Mandate Punishment Against The VICTIMS Of Harmless Food Sundries Who Did Not INVENT The CAUSE?

  15. Junk food is carefully engineered, designed, branded and marketed to ensure maximum market penetration and consumption. Therefore, I believe the responsibility lies mostly with our institutions.

    It seems immoral to set up a system whereby underprivileged members of our society that experience significant hardship – including social determinants such as impeded access to education and mobility – are prosecuted when our institutional structures are geared towards ensuring people consume. If MSG is added to food products in the manufacturing process for the purpose of increasing tastiness and food addiction, and our governments and society encourage business success and high levels of consumption, aren’t we prosecuting those we encourage to partake?

    Can we really expect that an average middle-class family with two working parents and three children have the time to cook and prepare healthy meals for the entire week? What about the nights where a child needs to be taken to the doctor and a one hour appointment unexpectedly becomes two hours and the family arrives home after 8:00 p.m.? Is junk food – such as chicken and chips – permissible then, if only to feed the family and allow time to complete the evening ritual of pyjamas, teeth-brushing and reading before lights out? Or do we expect that healthy food be available even at these times?

    I don’t buy into prosecution when our institutions are set up to encourage the consumption of junk food.

    1. Joanna: many thanks. I entirely agree that the junk food manufacturing companies are massively culpable. They are guilty of corporate child abuse on a huge scale. But that doesn’t mean that appropriately informed parents have no responsibility. Of course, as has been agreed in the discussion, if parents really can’t obtain non-junk alternatives, then they shouldn’t be penalised, but is it really so hard?

    2. Joanna wrote: “I don’t buy into prosecution when our institutions are set up to encourage the consumption of junk food.”

      I think the causality is back to front here: it’s not the case that the 40-hour week, gender equality in the labour force, etc were set up for the benefit of Burger King. Burger King came about as a response to the prevailing conditions in which families find themselves. The industry fills a gap in the market for just those times when one is more inclined to substitute capital for labour and buy a meal rather than cook one. That’s a valuable role, and it seems to me to be just as valuable for a poor person attending KFC as for a rich person attending a michelin-starred restaurant. The issue is how to regulate the industry so as to do little (or preferably no) harm. Legislating consumers strikes me as less appealing than legislating producers for a bunch of reasons, but especially on efficiency and administrative grounds. We already have loads of regulations regarding food (preparation, storage, hygeine, what you can eat, etc) – the obvious thing to do is to tighten nutritional requirements in that existing regulatory basket. I’m not opposed in principle to the idea that consumer regulation may have a role to play in some ways, especially but not exclusively** where there are principal-agent problems, but if you want to see it as a problem relating to an *industry* (rather than individuals) then the obvious thing to do is to regulate the industry itself.

      **Seems to me moral hazard issue arise where people can socialise their medical costs, too.

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