Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

13 December, 2006

Erecting a Wall of Separation Between Fat and State

Ben Brothers over at Badger Blues (I just love alliteration) has chimed in on the Great Madison Trans Fat Debate. Unfortunately his argument takes a wrong turn in the early stages. Mr. Brothers tells us:

The appropriate analogy to a trans fat ban is not a ban on Twinkies or a ban on alcohol. It’s a ban on E. coli, or shit, or mealworms…

This is an incredibly specious analogy. Trans fats are, as he points out, fats whose carbon atoms are oriented a certain way. They are not fecal matter, they are not bacteria, and they are not larvae. A more apt comparison is of trans fats to artificial coloring and preservatives. His analogy only serves to paint portraits of the Krafts and Archer Daniel Midlands of the world with horns and cloven hooves. This disingenuous semantic sleight of hand is about demonizing Brother's enemy, not describing food.

His motives are understandable given the title of his post: "Trans fats are about corporate responsibility, not personal health". But I think that even the title is a bit misleading. Readers are urged to not think of trans fats as "unhealthy ingredients", but rather as "pollutants" added to food "because it is cheaper for large industrial-scale food producers to use them instead of more natural (and edible) alternatives." He also favors "a city-wide effort to replace school lunches with locally-grown, organic foods from farmers in Dane County and Wisconsin."

Mr. Brothers is keen on a ban instituted by the state:

A Wisconsin-wide prohibition, on the other hand, would be a great idea, and could even have the added salutary effect of helping out our organic growers, family farms and local restaurants, who would be at less of a disadvantage against large conglomerates who can leverage the industrial food processes that benefit from trans fats.

Mr. Brothers has a bone to pick with agri-business and wants to co-opt our state government to exact a vendetta against it. To this I say: No, no, no – a thousand times no! How many years of legislative debate and how many bans will we have to suffer until you can drink your organic ginseng-laced herbal tea while watching as the walls of the Kraft corporate headquarters come crumbling down and the upper management of ADM commit seppuku? How about an explicit set of criteria for how far you want to go instead of "Big corporations are bad". Just as I object to Mr. Rhoads wanting to use the coercive power of government to force a lifestyle of which he personally approves onto everyone, I also object to Mr. Brothers attempting to use the coercive power of government to lash out at businesses of which he personally disapproves in an attempt to create a bucolic paradise where people drown themselves in a gluttony of locally-produced organics.

I too have a bone to pick with a certain sector of the food industry. But I will not ask Brenda Konkel, Mayor Dave, or Jimmy Doyle to pop into a telephone booth and don a cape and tights with a big "B" blazoned across the chest so they can go out using their superpowers to ban ingredients.

My suggestion that the city remove trans fats from the menus of our schools seems to be popular so I went and looked at the December Elementary School Breakfast & Lunch Menus. It looks like a ban on trans fats here would be a Pyrrhic victory, at best. This is because chicken nuggets and French fries cooked in trans fat-free oils are still shite. I'll wager that mealworms have more nutritive value than that crap. I was disappointed to see that we are feeding kids Poptarts & nachos but was absolutely appalled that we have a "Pizza Hut schedule". Henry David Thoreau would spin in his grave if he found out that the school named in his honor was feeding kids that slop.
|| Palmer, 9:34 AM


I'm not trying to "demonize" anyone, nor do I have a "vendetta" against agri-business, which I don't mention and which has very little to do with the production of trans fats.

But I do think there are societal responsibilties that are divergent from the financial responsibility a company has to its shareholders, and that the government can be a means by which those societal benefits are realized.

I think the science argues in favor of adding a trans fat ban to that list of societal responsibilities. I can understand if you don't think so. But your rhetoric about "using the coercive power of government to lash out at businesses of which [I] personally disapprove" makes it sound as if you don't believe in societal responsibility at all. Is that really the case? Does the government, whether at the local or state level, have no legitimate role to play here? I don't mean to beg the question; I'm just wondering where you're coming from with this argument.
Blogger Ben Brothers, at 11:06 AM  
Hi Mr. Brothers,
An unfair comparison of adding trans fats to foods and adding feces, larvae, and a deadly bacteria which can kill with a single exposure to foods does not qualify in my book as a neutral or objective description of the behavior of a company. You made the implication that the presence of trans fat in a food is tantamount to the presence of excrement and use this as a way to turn your agrument towards the behavior of corporations and it is also a characterization of corporations. If "vendetta" isn't applicable, then what word is for someone who accuses large corporations of polluting our food and then lays out a general strategy of fighting these large corporations by having the government ban one product and then rid the schools completely of their other products? You can have all the vendettas you want against companies that use trans fats but don't drag our government into your plot in exacting them.

I agree with you that companies have societal responsibilities. I also agree with you that governments can be a means for ensuring that companies are responsible in this way. The operative word here is "can". Bans are not the answer to every corporate action we find disagreeable.

If the Oscar Meyer plant were to start dumping all their meat by-product effluence into Madison rivers and lakes again, I'd be irate. I'd be railing at them for shirking their responsibility to the community and polluting our water. I would get my bicycle all lubed up & operable again, buy a rickshaw trailer thingy, ride to your house & pick you up, bike over to the Willy Street Co-Op and buy us both 6-packs of organic green tea (no sweetner for me, thanks), and haul our asses down to a city council meeting and/or a DNR meeting. I would proudly sit next you and call for someone's head at Oscar Meyer or, at least a cage match between Mayor Dave and the manager who thought it would be a good idea to screw up our ecosystem with hot dog corpses and salami entrails. I wanna see Mayor Dave deliver the People's Elbow to that asshole.

So, yes, I do believe in societal responsibility. But I don't believe that we consumers are just a bunch of lemmings either. Take last night's rally for The Mic. That was a great event and I think our city should be proud of it. But notice what didn't happen - no government told Clear Channel what kind of station it could have at 92.1. However, government (federal, in this case) has every right and responsibility to manage the airwaves. I'm all in favor of limiting the number of radio and TV stations a company can own, for instance. Please believe me, I do not have picture of Milty Friedman on my walls.

I take issue with your statement that science argues in favor of a ban. Science can tell us what trans fats are and how they affect the body, but it is not a method for determining whether trans fats should be banned - that's politics. I don't mean to insult you here nor come across as an anal-retentive yutz but I've had to endure several years of complete buffoons on TV, in the White House, in Congress, and elsewhere saying that Intelligent Design is science and demonstrating that they do not comprehend multiple meanings for the word "theory". Again, I am not trying to insult you here but do understand that, after having Christian assnuggets dominate discourse the past several years, I am quite sensitive to claims about science.

Would you believe me if I told that my papers were always downgraded in school because of my lack of concision?

I want to address one last thing here so I don't bore you to death. What role does government have in this case? And, since you didn't specify which level of government, I'm going to stick with the city of Madison. If you want others, just ask.

1) Get Pizza Hut out of our schools.

2) We've got a braintrust in these matters at the UW. Get some profs involved with teachers, parents, politicos, etc. in assessing the physical education and health classes of our schools.

3) Without the benefit of a task force, I'd recommend the city reduce the amount of fried foods served; include more non-meat sources of protein to replace some meat in the menu; use organics where possible; and use local sources where possible.

4) Require disclosure of trans fats on menu. (Yeah, easier said than done to ensure that they're accurate.)

5) Have townhall meetings on the issue of trans fats and health issues generally. Get UW faculty, the Lunch Lady Dorises of our schools, parents, et al together and invite the public. Perhaps these could be in conjunction with #2.

6) Make a PSA. Ask the guys in Monty Python about using some footage of Mr. Creosote from The Meaning of Life. (You know, the fat guy who pukes all over after eating the "wahfer theen meent".)

Be creative and focus on children so that they'll develop good eating and exercise habits early which will carry into adulthood.

(I feel like Paul Soglin now.)

I look forward to your rejoinder.

Take care,
Blogger Palmer, at 1:56 PM  
Ha! Awesome! I would equate trans fats with pollutants, seems agreeable to me. And we could do 1-6 from Palmer, but wouldn't it be easier to just ban trans-fats? It is time to make a statement. Government is here to implement the public wishes not pussy foot with task forces. So, lets stop fucking around. Palmers debate comes down to the "slippery slope" argument, which I also believe in but is also the excuse people give who are not willing to use government to their advantage.
Blogger Rhoads, at 3:32 PM  
No, the government is not here to merely implement people's wishes and it is certainly not here to implement *your* wishes exclusively. Is that all the government is to you - something to be taken advantage of so you can impose your views on everyone else? Are you familiar with the town of Burke which lies east of Madison? It was named after Edmund Burke - read something by him. Try his Speech to the Electors of Bristol, for a start.

You may very well have a good career down on K Street ahead of you.
Blogger Palmer, at 3:59 PM  
And as long as you're in the mood to expound upon the purpose of government, why don't you write another op-ed for dane101 telling us of your immense satisfaction with the latest implementation of the nebulous "public wishes" - the amendment banning gay marriage. Please tell us how glad you are that the wishes of the public now enshrine discrimination in our state's constitution.
Blogger Palmer, at 4:39 PM  
If my use of the word "shit" came across as too inflammatory, I'll retract it. Of course the analogy is not perfect, but it is a better one than the health-nut comparison. In the case of both shit and trans fat, the bad ingredient is there because its presence is cost-effective for the producer while being wholly pernicious for the consumer. It costs money to make sure the shit stays out, or to use alternate fatty acids.

You mention artificial coloring, which is a good analogy too. Imagine if there were a particular kind of red coloring that was slightly cheaper than alternatives, but which resulted in the deaths of several thousand people a year, and which had serious health risks for millions. Would it not be reasonable to (a) require foods that used this coloring be labelled as such, or (b) require that foods used an alternative coloring?

Badness is not binary, of course, and my invocation of "science" was not meant to suggest that it was. Current science (legitmate science, not intelligent design or wrathful dispersion) emphasizes the negative impact of trans fats. Where on the badness scale trans fats fall, and the benefits and repercussions of banning them, are a political decision. Depending on one's analysis of those tradeoffs, one can argue for a trans fat ban without being a nanny-state Nazi.
Blogger Ben Brothers, at 5:52 PM  
I shall leave the shit analogy alone as well as the separate magesteria of science and politics.

I think it is perfectly reasonable to label foods with the dye as you suggested. I also think that it is perfectly reasonable to label foods that contain trans fats. Indeed, trans fats are required on food labels right now.

Here's some info from the FDA:

"A small amount of trans fat is found naturally, primarily in some animal-based foods.

Trans fat, like saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, raises the LDL cholesterol that increases your risk for CHD. Americans consume on average 4 to 5 times as much saturated fat as trans fat in their diets.

Although saturated fat is the main dietary culprit that raises LDL, trans fat and dietary cholesterol also contribute significantly."


Notice first that trans fats occur naturally in some foods.

Secondly, the above is why my response to Nick Rhoads contained the comments about Madison following whatever trend comes out of NYC. Saturated fats are the main culprit. So, we ban trans fats - then what? Restaurants can then replace them with saturated fats - the main culprit. So is a ban on saturated fats - the main culprit - next? How far are you willing to go to legislate health?

Read the FDA page above and you'll find some good advice which alludes to the real problem here: people's eating habits. (And, I would argue on top of this, exercising habits.) The problem is not that there are trans fats in our foods which can be remedied away in a poof of smoke with a ban, but rather that people eat a diet of lots of crappy foods that contain lots of fats of all kinds.

Let me reiterate: the main culprit here is saturated fats that are perfectly natural. The are not put into dairy products or meats by large corporations to maximize their profits. They are natural and organic just like Nick Rhoads' favorite peanut butter. So while he is not consuming trans fats while eating that PB, he is consuming lots of saturated fats - the main culprit.

This notion that banning trans fats is suddenly going to make people healthy is a chimera. There is no magic wand, beyond the most draconian measures, which will change people's eating habits so they consume less of all types of fats and exercise more.

I agree with you that not every ban by a government makes us a nanny state. In addition, I want to be clear that I'm not calling you or anyone else a Nazi here. Having said this, I will say that, when people eat unhealthy foods that indicate they are unhealthy right on their labels and you start banning the unhealthy ingredients, that's the action of a nanny state.

Having read the FDA page referenced above, I am not convinced that banning trans fat will, in and of itself, have a particularly great impact on health. I still feel that any energy you want to expend in the name of public health would be better directed at revising the lunch and PE programs at our schools so that our children eat less of all kinds of fats, get exercise, and (hopefully) have good eating habits instilled in them. I think this will have a more beneficial impact than trying to wage war on the trans fats that Mr. and Mrs. Couch Potato consume while they sit and watch TV for 6 hours a day as they eat potato chips and cookies. I also want to reiterate that Mr. & Mrs. Couch Potato's lifestyle is not yours or mine to dictate. And it certainly is not the city's nor the state's place to dictate it either.

I applaud you and people like you that have concern over public health and our foods. I encourage you to further enter the marketplace of ideas and spread the word about healthy foods, about the crap the large corporations put in their products, about buying local and supporting local farmers, etc. And I think the city can aid that effort. I also think that the city does a good job in abetting people who seek fun physical activities and exercise by maintaining a wonderful system of parks, bike paths, MSCR recreational activities, and now a swimming pool.

Honestly, I've been trying to find a simple, yet perfect, analogy for you which sums my feelings on the matter. Alas, I can't think of one. The closest I can get is AIDS. AIDS is a public health issue. It kills people. But I am absolutely dead set against government at any level regulating or interfering with the sex lives of consenting adults to address AIDS. I realize that a banning people with HIV or AIDS from having sexing would be basically impossible to enforce but it would be the sheer audacity and disrespect shown by legislators and citizens who would favor such a law that would appall me. The sex lives of adults are not the business of our neighbors nor of the government. And to poke one's nose into others' bedroom like this would be case of people doing unto other that which they would not have done unto them. People who would support such a measure would almost certainly do so because it wouldn't affect them. They don't have AIDS so they feel this somehow empowers them to lord over others. The second a law comes around which would affect them, they'd raise holy hell.

Hand out free condoms and inform people what AIDS is and does. But do not intrude into the bedroom.

The analogy is not perfect, I know. But it illustrates a basic feeling of mine here: Most people who support a ban on trans fats know that the fats are unhealthy. This translates into a moral equation: eating trans fats = wrong. Next comes using the government to enforce that morality. But, if someone came along and tried to force their morality on these ban supporters, they'd be angry because they are unwilling to have done unto themselves what they would do to others. I sincerely believe that, in general, people who support bans on trans fats have no problem seeing their views and morals become law but would have a fit if someone else with whom they disagreed started imposing his or her views. Essentially it boils down to an attitude of "I will dictate to you how you shall live your life but don't you dare try to do the same to me." People tend to love general rules until it becomes applied to them and then it's special pleading. So I would say that the crux of my argument is not the slippery slope, but rather the Golden Rule. Don't try to make dietary choices for me because you certainly wouldn't like it if I did that to you.
Blogger Palmer, at 11:26 AM  

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