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The State’s “MyPlate” War Is a War on Consumer Choice

By: Contributor - Jul 10, 2014, 4:39 pm
The new state-approved diet in the United States. (Choose My Plate)
The new state-approved diet in the United States. (Choose My Plate)

EspañolThe state doesn’t stop short of your kitchen. Its members are determined to decide what, how, and where you can eat; on top of that, they try to assign food portions according to each “type of person.” Armchair bureaucrats, with no insight into the specific needs or desires of individuals, limit what you can buy in restaurants and supermarkets.

Many of us already know that regulations substantially reduce economic freedom and create artificial monopolies that inflate prices. Fewer people appear to be aware, however, the degree to which state intrusions reduce our food choices. Like the father who does not allow a child sweets before dinner, the state takes on that role and dictates what you can and cannot eat.

Starting with the production of food, there is government intervention at every stage. In the United States, expansive government agencies are in charge of deciding which grains are suitable for planting, and what their ideal condition during harvest should be.

Even before production, massive farm subsidies distort the food industry. According to a study published by the Cato Institute, the federal agency in charge of subsidizing agriculture costs US taxpayers between US$10 and US$30 billion every year. The amounts vary depending on crop market prices, natural disasters, and previous payments, among other factors.

Subsidies lead to an increase in rural land prices, block agricultural innovation, and create incentives for rent-seeking and excess production. They also discourage both cost reduction and diversity of land use, and go hand in hand with artificial prices and food waste.

Food safety is essential but excessive regulations curtail innovation. (Centro para el Control y la Prevención de Enfermedades)
Food safety is essential, but excessive regulations curtail innovation. (Center for Disease Control and Prevention)

Mandated safety procedures, not tailored to consumer wishes, also add to prices. They make producers spend more on various additives to achieve centrally planned quality standards. Moreover, these create a barrier to entry for new producers who do not yet have the experience or are not financially capable of reaching these standards. Someone seeking to make a go of it in the industry, without obeying the food police, will soon find himself in legal hot water — as so many food-truck cases have shown.

Self-Regulation? Not So Fast

In most US states, small producers of raw milk, even those that have been extremely careful with their methods, must break the law to satisfy consumer demands. This is a particular case that illustrates how the private sector can, in fact, create its own guidelines for safe consumption. The Raw Milk Institute, a nonprofit whose mission is to improve people’s health and immune systems, and they teach production methods to agriculturists, offer education to the wider public, and set guidelines that providers can adhere to for the safety of consumers.

raw milk institute
This institute seeks to educate consumers in regards to the consumption of milk products. (Raw Milk)

Of course, the state does not have, nor should it have, an extraordinary capacity to monitor all production processes. Imposing top-down regulations is a fool’s errand, since food can be produced in so many ways, and new methods continue to arrive on the scene.

There are always players who favor regulations, though — for the people, and with no crony interests at all. The food-truck battle is also illuminating here, since “safety” is merely a codeword for protectionism, keeping potential entrepreneurs out of the market.

food trucks
If the bill is passed, the red circles represent the places where the food trucks will not be allowed to operate. (OC Weekly)

Mobile restaurants offer a desirable option for city workers with a hectic schedule: a win-win situation for everyone, or so it would seem. Municipalities are seeking to legislate operations essentially out of existence. California legislator Bill Monning, for example, has introduced a bill to prohibit food trucks from operating within 1,500 feet from a public school. Children might — perish the thought! — buy from the food trucks instead of from their school cafeterias.

However, such justifications are wafer thin, since most children are not allowed to leave the school property during lunch. Further, the restrictions do not apply for fast-food restaurants, such as Burger King, and we all know how healthy they are.

Dare one ask, if not the children, who are they trying to “protect” with this legislation?

Unintended Consequences, Undermining Personal Responsibility

As the United States has given subsidies to farmers for decades, those in power have made some items cheaper. That sounds great, right?

However, every law has its unintended consequences, since not all items are treated equally as far as the handouts go. Consider what you would prefer: a Big Mac with french fries and a soft drink, or a smaller salad portion? As you can see from the diagram, subsidies have, unfortunately, worked twisted our incentives contrary to a balanced diet.

Por qué una BigMac es más barata que una ensalada. (Physicians Committee)
Why is a BigMac cheaper than a salad? (Physicians Committee)

Given that every individual is responsible for his eating habits, lawsuits against firms such as McDonald’s for causing obesity are absurd. They also ignore the elephant in the room: the multi-million-dollar subsidies given for the production of a Big Mac’s ingredients.

Still, those in office want to appear like they are doing something to avert a purported obesity crisis. Their proposed solution is to create more regulations and a USDA program in charge of nutrition: MyPlate.

To be clear, I support initiatives, similar to MyPlate, that seek to educate consumers on adequate food portions — of which there are already many working on a private basis. I take exception, however, with subsidies that benefit certain groups of producers and interfering in such ways that work exactly opposite to their rhetoric. The food industry is already extremely innovative; let it breath free for these innovations to hasten.

Sugerencias del plan gubernamental Mi Plato. (My Plate)
Suggestions of the governmental plan My Plate. (My Plate)

Translated by Mariana Nava.