Sunday, December 10, 2006

Transfats and Foie Gras

Motherhood and apple pie may epitomize "America," but governments lately are taking this literally as they try to act like parents and police what we eat. Chicago, of course, gained notoriety this summer for banning the sale of foie gras (though, in a humorous loophole, I understand that they can still give it away - leading to $100 pizzas with free foie gras on top!) And now New York has banned the sale of foods with trans-fats in them, and is considering following Chicago's lead with foie gras.

The trans-fat issue is one where I think the government might actually have a legitimate role, but is going about it all wrong. Trans-fats raise legitimate health issues, but an outright ban makes no sense - it's heavy handed, and restricts many legitimate uses along with the problem scenarios. Bans like this for decisions that a rational adult should be perfectly capable of making should be anathema to anybody that loves freedom.

Most trans-fats in cooking are a relatively recent (last century or so) invention, and are not naturally occurring (though some small amounts are natural). More to the point, switching away from trans-fats to other fats can generally done transparently, with no obvious effects on taste or outcome. I say "generally" because there are places where these fats fill a unique role - a little bit of Crisco in a pie crust can make it somewhat flakier more effectively than butter.

So going without trans-fats is, with a few minor exceptions, a fine and doable option, and a good thing for people to do. If this is the case, and if a ban is a bad idea, what is a reasonable approach to addressing the health issues associated with trans-fats? The best idea I've heard is one where the government doesn't ban trans-fats explicitly, but requires (a) clear labeling of any foods that contain them, and , (b) taxes levied to recover the associated health costs. This is similar to the approach with cigarettes, of course, and smoking has been declining steadily over the last several years.

The two best ingredients to people making smart personal decisions are good information, which the labeling provides, and an economic proposition that reflects more or less the realities and tradeoffs of the decision at hand, which a tax would provide. Then let people make their own choice. If they decide to get fat and have a heart attack, why shouldn't that be their prerogative, as long as the rest of society doesn't have to pick up the tab for that decision?

The ban on foie gras is not quite the same, in that the issue here is not so much a personal decision as it is one based on an argument of animal cruelty. I would have a hard time trying to justify animal cruelty, but the issue is not whether or not you support animal cruelty, but whether what happens meets the definition of animal cruelty. (I think this argument is analogous to the one I recently made about abortion being a debate about where the line is for infanticide).

"If God didn't want us to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat?"
-- Homer Simpson

If foie gras truly is animal cruelty, then tasty as it is, it is reasonable for governments to ban it. I argue above that the decision to eat trans-fats is a personal one and a "victimless crime," but abusing animals is hardly victimless; it is certainly within the reasonable jurisdiction of governments to ban such activities or their outcomes.

I personally love seared foie gras, and would hate to see it banned. (And frankly, I think Chicago and NY should focus on more pressing problems facing their populations.) Given that geese do not have a natural gagging relfex, it is also not clear to me that this crosses the line to animal cruelty.

Absent a clear distinction between foie gras and other "cruel" foods (veal, factory-farm poultry, etc.), then I worry that banning foie gras is just the first step down a slippery slope towards banning a host of other food products.

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