Friday, March 12, 2010

Food allergy fascists make peanuts of us all

Be afraid, be very afraid. The food Nazis are on the hunt through suburban school lunch boxes. Food is no longer a private matter in our educational institutions; parents are quaking in their shoes, terrified that they will be judged on the efficacy of their social responsibility and parenting skills by the contents of the humble pail. The fallout of which means becoming social pariahs based on white bread, or the inclusion of a Tim Tam.

Teachers peer beneath the lids of the not so humble receptacles (very seldom now a simple plastic box – they’re now themed, decorated, iced, chilled, heated, layered, compartmentalised and sheathed) and “tut tut”, or shake their heads at a child’s humble peanut butter sandwich or limp carrot.

Quite often, a ‘parent helper’ is on duty in the classroom and will also investigate what a harried, working mum has flung together and encased in cling wrap, subsequently broadcasting to all and sundry (other competitive mothers) that ‘Little Susie’ came to school with the dregs of the pantry, or an anaphylaxis just waiting to happen.

Do you remember the simple days as a kid, when everyone sat around at lunchtime in the yard, poking despondently at the sad vegemite sandwich and sipping on tepid cordial? Those were the days, when food was simple and only vaguely nutritious, before the prevalence of food allergies and the litigious nature of society.

You were responsible for teaching your own children not to steal other’s lunches and to refrain from picking their noses without a hanky. Now it’s all about fear, the school live in fear of being sued by parents angry that ‘Little Angus’ in the class next door consumed a peanut butter sandwich fifty metres from their ‘Little Johnnie”, the poor mums live in fear of being judged a failure if they don’t whip up a three course meal and box it up everyday.

The poor kids live in fear that they will be made consume their midday repast whilst sitting on the special chair at the front of the class reserved for children who have dared to come to school with natural roasted almonds as a snack, quarantined in case a sliver of a ‘tree nut’ sprays on ‘Little Angus” who has a peanut allergy. If “Little Angus” at the age of 10, doesn’t know enough not to stuff a stray almond in his mouth which he found on the floor, then “Little Angus’s” parents have got a problem on their hands!

What is happening, where did personal responsibility go and privacy for that matter, is food the new frontier of the Nanny State? I don’t advocate my children sharing food, and they are well aware of the dangers of food allergies – they live with a mother who could expire on a mouthful of mango, but this is ludicrous. The guilt, the oversight, the intrusion.

Today I will send my offspring to school with wholegrain wraps, filled with home baked Mediterranean chicken, mayonnaise, chives, home grown cherry tomatoes with a chaser of yoghurt dip and home made berry coulis. Tomorrow, I’m bloody well sending grated chocolate sandwiches on white bread and a chocolate Hershey bar. Take that Food Nazis – I will choose what I feed my kids and I’ll thank you to keep your noses out of my Tupperware – my kids’ impending malnutrition and/or constipation is our own business.


Life, Liberty And The Pursuit Of Fatty Foods

Trans fats may be bad for you, but government regulation is worse

States and municipalities across the country--from New York City to the State of California--have banned partially hydrogenated cooking oils, also known as "trans fats," in restaurants under their jurisdiction. This much is apparent: Trans fats are bad for you. But government regulation is bad for you, too. Seemingly innocuous and well-meaning interventions can lead to less innocuous, less benign interventions later. Should we trust the state to regulate what we do, even when it is for our own good? Further, if we're going to regulate, why should we stop at trans fats?

The case against trans fats is well documented, and I will in no way dispute the claim that a diet high in trans fats is bad for your health. But what about personal happiness and liberty? The history of bans on alcohol, tobacco, firearms and now trans fat shows us that much more than our health is at stake.

In the 1990s, people asked whether the prosecution of tobacco companies would lead to the prosecution of fast food restaurants. The government took down Joe Camel--would Ronald McDonald be next? "Don't be ridiculous," they were told. "This is about tobacco, and it's for the children. Besides, trying to regulate food choices would be an unconscionable infringement on personal liberties." But sure enough, here we are a few short years later discussing trans fats and fast food the same way we discussed tobacco.

There is also no such thing as a free "trans-fat-free" lunch. Restricting trans fat consumption requires resources. Police officers could instead use these resources to enforce laws against crimes like theft, property damage, rape and murder, and educators could use these resources in the classroom. Are educators using their time and resources wisely preventing illegal bake sales and making sure school fundraisers and functions sell only stuff that's on the "approved" list?

The concerned citizen-busybody has to ask whether treating adults as if they were children is a wise use of resources. And those who wish to control others' behavior have to ask what gives them the right to do so. Criminalizing voluntary trades with which we disagree--like, say, the decision to trade a few dollars for tasty, trans-fat-laden french fries--trivializes the concept of crime and undermines the legitimacy of the legal system.

A simple reductio ad absurdum shows that regulations aimed at protecting people from themselves are morally absurd. Why stop with trans fats? Why not activities that could pose more of a threat to our individual health and well-being? If we are going to try to control smoking and trans fats because they are dangerous, should we not also try to control risky sexual behavior? Giving the state discretion over what you do in your living room (smoke) made it much easier for them to regulate what you do in your kitchen (cook with or consume trans fats). Letting the authorities into your living room or your kitchen puts them only a few steps from your bedroom, and I for one won't be surprised when they try to invite themselves in.

You might harm yourself when you consume trans fats, but to borrow a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, you neither pick my pocket nor break my leg. Furthermore, it is naive to think that the state will stop at regulating and prohibiting only the things we don't like. When we cede power to the state, we give them the power to do evil as well as good. It's only a matter of time before they use it.


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