Earlier this year I warned in a column that food freedom – the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat and drink the foods you want – would be “under attack” in 2014. But even I couldn’t have predicted the crushing regulatory assault that’s hit American consumers and food producers in just the first quarter of this year.
In fact, 2014 may go down as the worst year for food freedom since the New Deal era, when Congress, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Supreme Court conspired to strip Americans of many basic food rights. Just how ludicrous was that period? In 1942, the Supreme Court actually upheld a New Deal law that prohibited farmers from using wheat they grew on their own farms to bake bread to feed their own families.
While we haven’t matched that historic low yet, there are still nine months left in the year. Here are just nine examples:
1) California Requires Chefs and Bartenders to Wear Gloves
A California food safety law that took effect this year requires chefs and bartenders to wear gloves when preparing food. Dumb idea? You bet. Besides making sushi preparation impossible, the law actually could make food less safe, as it could decrease the likelihood that food and drink preparers will wash their hands. The law prompted a group of California chefs and bartenders to mount a furious, ongoing campaign to repeal the law, suggesting that latex belongs in the bedroom, not the kitchen.
2) The FDA Moves to Ban Trans Fats
The public comment period closed earlier this month on an FDA proposal that would effectively ban the use of trans fats – fats that are processed from vegetable oil – in many popular products. The proposed change would force many makers of doughnuts, frostings, coffee creamers, microwave popcorn and other foods to prove to the FDA that the trans fats they contain are safe. Trans fats may be unhealthy – just like many other perfectly legal foods and food ingredients – but the available data, which I’ve analyzed at Reason magazine’s website, shows that 1) Americans don’t eat more trans fats than the American Heart Association recommends they eat, and 2) trans fat bans haven’t been proven to save lives. Don’t care about trans fats? Salt, sugar and caffeine may be next on the FDA’s hit list.
3) Federal Food Nannies Tracking and Texting You?
A federally appointed Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), which meets every five years to update a variety of federal nutrition policies, recently discussed ways the government can make us all healthier. One suggestion to come out of the meetings was that the government send encouraging text messages to obese people. How would the government know if you’re obese? They’d have to collect and store that data. That’s creepy. What’s more, the more that the government looks over your shoulder when you eat, the less free you are to make your own food choices.
4) School Lunches Are Terrible, So Let’s Expand Them!
The federal government is on the verge of providing free lunches to millions of students, whether they want them or not. First lady Michelle Obama recently announced plans to expand the National School Lunch Program to every student who attends schools where more than 40 percent of students receive a free- or reduced-price school lunch. These are the same lunches that students nationwide have been rejecting, thanks to the challenges of meeting new federal standards Mrs. Obama championed. These same standards helped drive more than 1 million paying students from the school lunch rolls nationwide. So why expand the program? This move to give free lunches to students who can otherwise afford to buy or pack a lunch is all about saving face. Don’t want to be part of the problem? Pack your child’s lunch.
5) The Farm Bill’s Even Worse Than Advertised
A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress passed a new Farm Bill earlier this year that eliminates direct subsidies for wealthy farmers. Good news? Hardly. In its place, Congress swapped in subsidized crop insurance, which harms the environment and could end up costing taxpayers even more money than direct subsidies. Farm subsidies, which were introduced during the New Deal era, were supposed to be “a temporary solution to deal with an emergency.” Generations after the emergency of the Great Depression ended, Congress’s continued dependence on subsidies has itself become an emergency.
6) California Lawmakers Can’t Decide What It Is You Should Be Drinking
California legislators have introduced an absurd bill that would force a warning label onto soda and other sweetened beverages sold in the state. Not to be outdone, members of San Francisco’s board of supervisors have proposed a hefty soda tax that would add almost $1.50 to the cost of a six-pack of soda in the city. The board is considering the measure even as yet another study has revealed that soda taxes don’t make anyone healthier. Do San Francisco officials suggest you switch to water? Not so much. The same board of supervisors also banned the city from buying bottled water, part of a move to “discourage single-use, single-serving plastic water bottles in San Francisco.”
7) Idaho’s Ag Gag Law
Last month, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, a Republican, signed an “ag gag” law, a type of law designed to prevent animal-rights activists like those working for PETA from videotaping animal abuse. I’m no fan of PETA, but the fact PETA doesn’t like ag gag laws doesn’t make these laws any good. If you value the freedom to make your own food choices and don’t want those choices to be regulated to death, then you recognize that the free flow of information in the marketplace of ideas is vital to helping you and other consumers make better choices in the marketplace of goods. PETA has the same rights under the First Amendment as does any other person or group to influence your food buying decisions. That doesn’t mean animal-rights activists have a right to trespass. Idaho and other states already have tough laws in place to deal with trespassers. Thankfully, a coalition has sued to overturn Idaho’s ag gag law.
8) States Considering Costly GMO Labeling Laws
At least half of the states are considering laws that would force producers to label products containing GMO ingredients. One thing supporters of these laws don’t tell you is that these laws would guarantee higher food costs. Why would these laws hit your checkbook? Food producers and grocers would have good reason to challenge the constitutionality of these laws in courts. Consumers would help foot the bill for these lawsuits through higher food prices. Meanwhile, states would use taxpayers’ money to defend against the lawsuits. Viewed against a backdrop where a growing number of companies like Chipotle and Whole Foods are either labeling or eliminating GMOs to meet consumer demand, these state labeling laws make little sense.
9) Lawyers Trying to Drum Up Lawsuits Against Food Makers
Want to see fewer choices at your grocery store and pay more when you check out? A group of trial lawyers are hoping to make that happen. Politico revealed last month that a few powerful lawyers have been working to convince more than a dozen state attorneys general to sue food companies for their alleged role in making Americans obese. While it’s unclear if any of the attorneys general is seriously considering such a lawsuit, this example in particular has the potential to make 2014 rival the New Deal for its sheer awfulness.
In the early 1940s, First lady Eleanor Roosevelt was forced to get approval from her husband’s overzealous Department of Agriculture in order to plant her White House garden. Reports at the time indicated the USDA was “skeptical of amateur farmers.”
It’s difficult to imagine the USDA treating Mrs. Obama’s ambitious White House garden with similar disdain today. But that doesn’t mean that her husband’s administration – or state and local governments around the country – plan to respect your food freedom anytime soon.
Baylen J. Linnekin is the executive director of Keep Food Legal.