Thursday, December 07, 2006

Chewing the Fat

Tuesday, the New York Board of Health unanimously voted to ban trans fat in all of New York restaurants. The ban will not take effect immediately, but the Board expects all of New York’s restaurants to be trans fat free as of July 2008.

Nutritionists across the country have applauded the decree, and have claimed that trans fats are worse than saturated fats as they both increase bad cholesterol and simultaneously decrease good cholesterol. Considering the disastrous effects of obesity as well as our national failure to combat the disease, the ban might just be the start of something both remarkably healthy and necessary: indeed, the city of Chicago has proposed a similar ban. Even multi-million, multi-national fast food chains have either already voluntarily stopped cooking with trans fats (KFC) or have begun researching trans fats alternatives (Wendy’s, I think).

Despite these obvious and admitted benefits, I’m still grappling with the Board of Health’s recent decision. Perhaps some form of libertarianism initiates my discomfort. I think this decree reeks of over-governance, perhaps of the worst kind of hold-your-hand liberalism. I felt the same about the V-chip push years ago, those cute little substitutes that let parents off the hook and keep their children from stumbling across sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. But V-chips never became law.

The Board of Health and other nutritionists have defended the ban, equating trans fats with slow-acting poisons. In some of the reports I have read, defenders will say that arsenic might taste good in food, but it’s the responsibility of the government (municipal, state, federal, what have you) to protect its citizens from a known poison. The same, they reason, goes for trans fats.

But interestingly, as of right now there’s nothing illegal about trans fats at all, at least outside of New York. The Food and Drug Administration has approved trans fats. I imagine that somewhere in the FDA’s tomes there’s a clause or section barring restaurateurs and chefs from lacing their food with arsenic (and if not, there probably should be). But as of right now, Washington says it’s OK to cook with. The National Restaurant Association says that banning trans fats sets us on a slippery slope, and that slope might be slippery because it’s been greased with cooking oils. Precedent could push municipal, state or federal government to ban (beloved) bacon, or as Nick Naylor had it in “Thank You for Smoking”, Vermont’s cheddar cheese. These fatty foods, not necessarily made with trans fats but certainly high in saturated fat, could be reasoned to act as even slower-acting poisons like their recently-banned cousin. Depending on how you look at it, this precedent might lead to fitter Americans or to an unnavoidable infringement on our inalienable rights.

This, of course, might all change. Considering New York’s move, Chicago’s potential move, the federal law mandating the labeling of all trans fats in commercial food and restaurants’ voluntary move away from trans fats, the oil might be, well, cooked. And if so, well, good riddance. Voluntary moves towards a healthier product and a healthier lifestyle are commendable, and if the free market demands a healthier product then that’s saying good about us as consumers (both economically and digestively).

An abrupt change here, but I think an important one that should reconnect with some of the ideas I’ve explored later on: The way, not ways, the bill is being covered is fascinating. More often than not, news agencies will say something to the effect of “Mayor Michael Bloomburg, who banned smoking in New York bars and restaurants during his first term, signed the bill today.” I simply don’t believe in the implied equation between smoking and trans fats. The push behind the smoking bans tends or tended to focus on the deleterious effects of secondhand/involuntary/passive smoking, that exposes ‘innocents’ to carcinogens that can lead to lung cancer. Yes, trans fats have obvious and maybe irreversible effects, and, like secondhand smoke, can increase the chances of cancer. But short of someone cramming a donut in your mouth or you slipping on a greasy French fry, I doubt that the same goes for fatty foods. A family can be effected by a family member’s poor eating, but a family can also effect the family member’s poor eating. And if we want to eat poorly for a meal or two or three or as many as we want, and if we understand the consequences of that meal, then, as adults, we should be entitled to. Right?
Maybe not. Like I said, the coverage of the bill is fascinating, and reveals something ugly about us as humans pre-politically. In order to stretch the article, news agents have gone to New York fast food joints and interviewed the patrons about the bill. More often than not, every patron supported the trans fat ban (I only read one complaint, wherein the patron worried that the price of his lunch would go up because of the costlier cooking oils). The patrons that supported the measure all discussed the obvious health benefits to the ban, were all eager to be eating healthier and realized that the change in the oil would probably improve their lives. Reporters, augmenting the quotes that they received from these patrons, noted that they received their quotes as the patrons fed their children McDonald’s French fries, gnawed on hamburgers, chewed on donuts.

As I said, most of the patrons expressed some understanding that trans fats were bad for them. Then why go and eat the damn food? Why put it in your children’s hands? Why wait for the government to come along, hold your hand, and smack the French fry from your mouth? If these patrons were concerned, truly concerned with what they were eating, were aware of what it could do to their bodies and so readily welcomed the enforced change, then why did they wait for the Board of Health? Like I said, the coverage reveals something ugly, something lazy, about us. In spite of our understanding, more often than not we won’t save ourselves. But we’ll happily wait for and let someone else do it for us.


Diana M. Gauvin said...

I think you nabbed it at the end, or at least you were getting to it. Straight up, it all comes down to the conclusion that founds a large percentage of dystopic novels: not quite that people are just lazy--it goes further. Folks these days sometimes put on a really good imitation of drones who would like to abandon choice for the illusion of it. What I mean is this: as long as foods with trans fats are available, a good percentage of people would rather pretend they don't exist and continue to fall into the same eating (out) habits that they are used to. As soon as someone offers to ban them, people leap on the opportunity to continue with the same habits, minus the trans fats that they know, deep down, are deleterious.

Habits are a really good way to avoid choice while retaining the illusion thereof. Here's an example: overwhelmingly, students past a certain age angrily oppose assigned seating, particularly in high school. They want to feel that they are being treated as adults and afforded the maximum possible choices. However, college and university courses, conferences and dinner tables don't have assigned seats--and yet, a great deal of the time, we revert into habit, returning to the same spots week after week. We don't rebel against ourselves; the illusion of choice is enough.

Incidentally, I am suspecting that this might be a valid argument against capitalism in general. People always talk about how communism is good in theory but practically unrealizable in large scale; the same may be true for capitalism. Certainly, one would hope that afforded with choices and the power of money, people will be compelled to be productive in an area they choose and then use their monetary power to hone the ideal society. But falling into habits, most citizens blithely ignore the negatives of the recipient of their precious 'choice' funds. The one exception is the equally-human love of novelty... but this is only well-advertised novelty that sucks us in, not sought "I don't like this" novelty.

I'm being pessimistic here. About your ban, well, I'm not sure. I hate that the ban -has- to exist and that capitalism didn't weed trans-fats out, but then again, apparently people expect that the government has to save us from ourselves. Seatbelt laws, banning Santa Claus from seeming too beer-loving (a recent case for a microbrew label shot down in Maine), and banning trans fats. These crazy democrats seem to think we need saving. Well, it pisses me off that we don't take steps ourselves and save them the trouble... but until then, maybe we do.

John A. Atchley III said...

The trans fat ban reminds me vaguely of Milton Friedman's arguments in favor of the free market. He was a bit (understatement) of a relentless proponent of capitalism and its ability to regulate itself. Perhaps it would be a bit of a stretch to characterize his argument as an attempt to promote capitalism as "pure" democracy or something of that sort, "pure" in its disinterest towards the content of the individual: that is, capitalism treats everyone the same.

I've always found that argument interesting, and there is something immediately compelling about it, until of course you remember that, by pretending equality, it effaces the storied histories that are obstacles to any sort of real, or functional, equality, in society.

Nevertheless, I think the real problem with arguments in favor of the free-market, (and I think your comments about overly intrusive government are important here, Ben), is an epistemological one. Without transparency, without the ability of the consumer, citizen, or, simply, the individual to know, if he/she so chooses, what constitutes their food (or anything else), then arguments for a free market are moot, because they will always depend upon a fundamental division between those who control information/power and those who live within that narrowly controlled space. That is, the free market argument is circular, and can only be valid (although even this is doubtful) within an already functioning free market society where these hierarchies are taken for granted or are pre-existing.

And when I speak of transparency, I don't do so metaphysically. There is no truth about a product that must be revealed to consumers, but it is exactly the possibility of multiple narratives pretending facticity that argues so strongly in favor of a democratic political society instead of a free-market driven one.

What I mean is that the free market is the weak, cowardly form of democracy. It capitulates in its initial formulation, willing to trade content for form, fetishize the individual while stripping it of the agency that guarantees individuality in the first place.

And this is why I agree with Ben's unease towards the trans-fat ban. It's liberal democracy acting cowardly, narrowing the space in which democracy can take place so that the democracy itself is more palatable to those who control it.

All New York City should have done was mandate that the information by which consumers might make a reasonable decision be available, and then let consumers/citizens/individuals decide.

I should be able to eat a gigantic bucket of transfat if I wanted to. (I don't think I do. Unless it tastes like bacon. In which case I do.)

The New York legislation prevents those who wish to, to do damage to themselves, and in some ways this is a right. (Ben brings up an interesting argument that I'd pursue further if I had the time to, and that is, exactly how can we think of individual actions or choices as affecting only the individual. What is the mechanism by which we theoretically maintain the divisions between the cigarette issue and the trans fat issue?)

Anyway, because this is losing efficacy quickly, my central point is this: democracy should be about providing a plural context in which plural decisions are possible. The way to maximize this is epistemologically, by providing people with information, and all different sorts of it at that. By banning transfats, government denies the agency of its citizens, who are, in an ideal democracy, identical with itself, and thus, a rift opens, with government divided from those who theoretically invest it with power. (This is a bad thing.)