Salt in the Wound, or the Sweetest Thing? On Placing Legal Limits On the Sugar, Salt and Fat Content of the Foods We Eat.
Last week, in the light of the UK’s growing obesity problem, the shadow health secretary Andy Burnham called for a debate on the question on whether a legal limit ought to be introduced on the amount of sugar,salt and fat that manufacturers can put into the foods that we eat, particularly those foods aimed primarily at children. In calling for such a debate, Mr Burnham pointed out that the obesity epidemic can no longer be ignored, given the challenges that widespread obesity will raise for the NHS. Furthermore, he suggested that the current government’s ‘responsibility deal’ , which aims to tackle the obesity problem by collaborating with food manufacturers to improve food content and labelling, is simply not working.
The question Mr. Burnham raises is slightly different to the question of ‘sin taxes’ explored recently on this blog. Sin taxes are a financial deterrent against consuming a certain (usually unhealthy) product; however, Mr. Burnham is raising the question of whether the government should go further than merely deterring people from consuming foods which are high in sugar, salt or fat; he is suggesting that the government ought to consider introducing legislation that actually limits the sorts of foods which the consumer can procure.
It is important to stress that Mr. Burnham’s concern in raising this question is primarily with the level of sugar, salt and fat in foods aimed at children. This is presumably based on the plausible assumption that children are normally not responsible for choosing the foods that they eat; in most cases, it is the parents or guardians of the child who are responsible for determining what the child eats. If many parents and guardians are not well-informed about which sorts of food are healthy, or about what is in the food that they are giving to their children, then it seems that there might be scope for the government to morally intervene in order to protect children from unknowingly consuming foods which might lead them to develop health problems in the future. Indeed, the content of baby food is already subjected to similar legal limits on similar moral grounds.
Those who agree with this position are likely to believe that such paternalism is warranted because the child herself does not have autonomy with regard to her food choices, and because the parents or guardians who currently decide what their children eat often lack crucial knowledge about which foods are healthy, or about what is actually in the food that they are giving to their child. This lack of knowledge may not always be a result of irresponsibility on the parent’s behalf; other factors such as coercive advertising and the lack of clarity in food labelling may also play a role. Moreover, some parents argue that the preponderance of unhealthy foods, and their low cost in comparison to healthier alternatives often leave them with little choice about what to give to their children. There does then seem to be some moral case in favour of legislation.
That is one side of the debate that Mr. Burnham has called attention to. However, there are a number of points worth bearing in mind when we consider the question of whether we ought to introduce legal limits to the amount of sugar, salt and fat in our foods. First, although sugary and fatty foods are linked to obesity (the link between salty foods and obesity is not so well established, although they have been linked with other significant health problems such as cardiovascular disease) , this is only when these foods form a significant proportion of the subject’s diet. Almost all non-obese people will, at one time or another, have indulged themselves or their children in certain foods which they realise are not necessarily healthy in themselves. They do so because they believe (correctly) that these foods do not pose a great risk to health if they are consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle. It seems permissible to treat your child to an ice cream with high sugar content every once in a while. Of course, this point does not speak against placing legal limits on things like breakfast cereals which are consumed on a daily basis, and which often contain very high levels of sugar. However, people who like to treat their children to occasional enjoyable ‘unhealthy’ treats might legitimately complain that placing a legal limit on sugary, or fatty foods punishes non-obese children for the sake of the obese.
Second, although Mr. Burnham’s concern is primarily with foods aimed at children, he does not rule out the possibility of placing similar legal limits on foods aimed at adults. Indeed, in 2011 Denmark placed a ‘sin tax’ on all foods high in saturated fats (although the Danish government has since announced that it plans to abolish the tax). As such, we might legitimately worry that a legal limit on children’s foods might lead to a similar ban on foods aimed at adults. This obviously raises deeper moral questions about the legitimacy of the paternalism implicit in the proposed legislation, since the government would then be intruding upon the choice of capacious adults.
Furthermore, if we include foods which aren’t primarily aimed children, it becomes less clear that the sugar, salt and fat levels of foods are an infallible guide as to whether or not consumption of that food is bad for one’s health. Again, a quick glance at the NHS website reveals that many foods which are high in salt can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet; not only that, but certain high-salt foods have other health benefits; for example, prawns are high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids as well as salt. Similarly, certain well-loved foods such as blue cheeses depend upon having a high salt content for their unique taste, character, and texture. A blanket ban on any food with high levels of salt, sugar or fat seems too blunt an instrument to recognise these nuances.
Third, Mr. Burnham points out that the government’s current voluntary approach of dealing with the obesity problem is not working. As the BBC article indicates, opinion is divided over the efficacy of the current government’s approach. However, let us assume for the sake of argument that Mr. Burnham is right and that the current approach is not working. If this is right, then one response is, as Mr. Burnham points out, to abandon the current approach in favour of legislative measures. However, another approach is to simply identify why the current approach is not working and attempt to remedy it. To take one example, I suggested above that one of the problems that parents face in choosing healthy food for their children is the lack of clarity in food labelling. One measure that is to be introduced in the UK this year will aim to tackle this problem by introducing consistent food labelling across different manufacturers; this measure is designed to increase the consumer’s understanding of the food that they are eating. As such, even if the responsibility deal is not currently working, there are clear ways in which it can be, and is being, improved.
Moreover, although poor diet is clearly a factor in the obesity epidemic, it is by no means the only one; the prevalence of sedentary lifestyles in the UK plays just as important a role. It is difficult to see how legally limiting sugary, salty and fatty foods will affect this equally important dimension of the obesity epidemic. However, increasing physical activity amongst the population is another core aim of the responsibility deal. Indeed, if we are to believe the hype about the ‘legacy’ of the recent UK Olympic Games, we might legitimately hope for significant improvements in this area in the near future. If the responsibility deal is to be given a fair run, then it must be given time. A problem as wide-spread and multi-factoral as the obesity epidemic is not going to disappear overnight; cultural change takes time.
Given the severity of the obesity epidemic, Mr. Burnham is right to raise the question of legislation; however, we should not go into the debate blindly, by failing to anticipate the bad effects of legislation, by failing to observe the alternative avenues open to us, or by falsely believing that legislation will act as a panacea for obesity. I do not claim that the above points represent knock-down arguments against Mr. Burnham’s proposal; however, we should enter into this important debate with our eyes open. The current government’s approach may not be perfect as it stands, but we can at least seek to improve it whilst leaving people with the freedom to make their own decisions.