What’s Left: Government Can Help Health Crisis

I’m here to argue that the government should take away your cheeseburgers.

Okay, well maybe I’m not actually going to argue that. But I will argue that in the face of a public health crisis, the federal government should enforce tough nutritional standards and food regulations to promote national wellness. Our institutions (yes, that means the federal government) are often more knowledgeable and better equipped to handle epidemics than the average citizen and therefore are uniquely situated to shape policy and keep consumers healthy. The current epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease constitutes a public health crisis, and the federal government should enact reforms and increase regulations to address these epidemics. If that means regulating the production of cheeseburgers, then so be it.

Before I explain why I think the government should do more to ensure better nutrition, I must address the central question here. Some say the federal government should not intervene in the food industry at all and that individuals should be able to make their own decisions about what to eat, or that businesses should be free to produce whatever sells. And who could argue against letting people decide for themselves what they want to eat for dinner? The problem with this assertion is that it assumes the government is not already involved in the food industry. In fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Arguably, the public health crisis we face was initiated by the federal government itself.

In middle school, I read a book entitled “Fat Land” with the intention of becoming more knowledgeable about the link between food and public health. What stuck with me was the book’s explanation of the federal government’s role in the food industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA)aren’t neutral actors, and they shape the food industry in ways we don’t realize. 

For example, want to know why we consume thousands of corn-based products, such as high-fructose corn syrup, every year? During the price shocks of the late 1960s and early 70s, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz sought to find substitutes for basic grains and sugars that were getting too expensive for consumers. This resulted in changes in government policy that encouraged farmers to plant more corn and switch from small farm operations to large agribusinesses. The result? A lot of cheap corn. And with a lot of cheap corn laying around, people figured out uses for corn starch that you didn’t even know were possible. We put corn and corn-related products in cookies, chicken nuggets, yogurt, mayonnaise, cereal and in Taco Bell meat. As a result of these policy changes made 30-40 years ago, obesity rates skyrocketed. More than one-third of the adult U.S. population is now obese, and we have to do something about it, lest we lose millions of our friends and neighbors to preventable diseases.

The federal government has never been a neutral actor when it comes to food. It has the power to act in the interest of the public as it did when people were having a tough time putting food on the table during the Nixon years. Government sets the rules of the game, and it should change those rules in order to incentivize food producers to produce healthier foods at lower costs. Exceptions should be made, of course. Snacks and desserts should be allowed to be produced with wholesome ingredients for the sake of indulgence. However, the problem lies more in the daily consumption of food with poor nutritional content. The USDA and the FDA should promote organic food production, require better labeling for restaurants and incentivize agribusinesses to produce a variety of products besides corn.

We have a moral and ethical responsibility to solve our food-related public health problems. When millions of people are dying from preventable diseases, should our institutions neglect to take action or should they do something about it? These problems are real, and there are policies, regulations and laws that can be crafted in order to improve public health. We should take action. And then maybe indulge in a cheeseburger.