By Jess Fanzo, Columbia University (Guest Blogger)


There is a lot of talk these days about how to regulate the food system to ensure better public health outcomes for consumers. While industry controls 70 percent of food choice, governments have a policy role to play to “protect” citizens. There have been many recent attempts, the most famous being Mexico’s junk food tax and Berkeley’s recently passed soda tax.


Food policies that control the availability and access of specific foods and beverages are controversial in the public eye, and often these policies are thought of as stigmatizing, a blaming of the disadvantaged, and controlling or “nannying.” Many agree that consumers do not like to be told what to eat and drink. Think of Bloomberg’s attempt at limiting soda portion sizes in New York City…


A recent paper by Anne Barnhill and colleagues published in the Kennedy Institute Ethics Journal, examines the role of ethics in effective food policies. The authors argue that food policies could be better constructed if they include or, at least, consider the value and disvalue of unhealthy eating – that is, the food experiences we have in which value is attached – whether that be for religious, social, habitual, or ritual reasons: the cake at the birthday party, the third helping of mashed potatoes and gravy at Thanksgiving, the drinks at five o’clock happy hour with co-workers, or the Sicilian Catholic feast of seven fishes.


Eating can be informed or uninformed, voluntary or involuntary, and deliberate or not. The built environment also plays a key role with consumption patterns being driven by the increased availability of low-cost food and drinks by the food industry, which are often low in nutritional value and high in energy and sugar, and oh-so-hard to resist. In fact, we don’t always consciously think about how or why we eat foods, but when policies come along that could potentially make that decision for us, some feel it takes away from personal liberties.


So how should health policies that emphasize healthy eating be better constructed? Barnhill asks:


“May the government implement policies that reduce hedonic pleasure or convenience, or prevent people from engaging in socially or culturally valuable experiences, for the sake of improving health?”


The authors conclude that we can’t always transform an unhealthy experience into a healthier one without compromising the values at stake. However, they recommend that health policies could be strengthened in an ethical manner if they set priorities that consider the values of eating. This can be done by grabbing for the low-hanging fruit – focus on policies that limit food options without impinging on valuable food experiences. As a second line of action, the authors recommend considering policies that facilitate or change social norms of unhealthy eating in valuable experiences. So, keep the value, lose the junk food. The third, and the most tricky [?], approach is policies that sacrifice value for public health. These are usually the hardest and most controversial decisions.


A great follow up to this paper, and one that addresses the third recommendation, would be to develop practical guidelines for policymakers on how to assess the values of food experiences. Where would they start? What are considered valuable food experiences? What is at stake if they are to be regulated or modified?


The Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins is doing some interesting work on global food ethics, tackling the complex and multifaceted issues of hunger and health, which they believe are tractable with the engagement of diverse stakeholders with different views of what is valuable when making food choices. Finding some consensus among these views is the only way to begin work toward sustainable, ethical food policies.

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Global Food Ethics
Jessica Fanzo

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