The Food Fascists

"Hitler was a vegetarian, don't you know. He was also an anti-smoker…militantly so."

~Joel Mabus

People who are surprised by the vigor of the recent push toward a Fat Tax on junk-food have not been paying attention to an important political trend. Julia Child called it "food naziism." Others call it the real food movement; it advocates taxes, in one form or another, on "unhealthy" food choices in much the same manner as sin taxes are currently imposed upon tobacco and alcohol. The tax advocated is not always a direct one. Sometimes it consists of imposing government policies that would discourage certain agricultural or mass processing practices.

The cover of Real Food for a Change – a recently published political manifesto that masquerades as a book on health through food – declares, "[T]he simple act of eating can: boost your health and energy, knock out stress, revive your community, clean up the planet." The authors' arguments slide from almost trite observations about the value of fresh produce to an explicit cry for food "justice." Thus Chapter 4, "Avoid Gassy Foods," segues into Chapter 5, "Set the Table for the Future," which calls upon local governments to exert greater control over the food supply and public health policy to ensure a just future. It is a future in which unhealthy food choices will be discouraged by government policy, if not outright prohibited.

Such people constitute a food police who wish to censor what you eat in much the same manner as their more intellectual counterparts wish to censor what you read. Their purpose is the same. They wish to keep you pure.

The term "food police" became prominent in the news some years ago, especially when applied to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) . Established in 1971 by scientists affiliated with Ralph Nader, the CSPI's focus has shifted over time from anti-nuclear advocacy to public policy on food. For example, the CSPI was a leader in the fight against the use of the fat-substitute olestra in potato chips, which erupted a few years back. To some observers, CSPI's stance on olestra must have seemed counterintuitive. The organization is one of the voices that has made phrases such as "artery-clogging fat" commonplace in modern dialogue.

The anti-olestra stance becomes perfectly predictable, however, in the context of CSPI's political mission: to use food and people's health fears to control government policy. Their vision allows no room for a mass-producing corporation like Frito-Lay to provide food solutions, no matter how well-tested. (After all, this is the same organization that made the sensational announcement carried far and wide by mass media: a substantial percentage of teenagers receive twenty-five percent of their calories from soda pop. Their subsequent announcement that the data had been overblown by one hundred percent received barely a mention.) Nor does the scaremongering CSPI's vision allow for individual choice. Indeed, the mission is so powerful that CSPI does not balk at the unPC cultural imperialism involved in condemning certain ethnic cuisines. It attacks the heritages embodied by food served in Italian, Chinese, and Mexican restaurants seemingly with no awareness of the cultural arrogance of this position.

Under the logo of a happy cartoon-potato and a happy carrot giving each other the high-five, the CSPI calls for ramming these vegetables down the throats of the public. Consider a June 1st Press Release that proudly declared, "Health advocates at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Yale University recommended in a paper in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health that soft drinks and snack foods be taxed to provide funding for nutrition and health campaigns." The CSPI's Nutrition Action Healthletter is reported to have almost a million member-subscribers who, presumably, support such Twinkie taxes. The new report cites a report drafted by Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI and Kelly D. Brownell, a professor of psychology at Yale University, who recommend a one-cent tax on every pound of snack food and every twelve ounces of soft drink. The report skips over the fact that the "anti-McDonald's" tax is a levy on human beings not upon faceless corporate America, and that the people most affected will be the poor who spend more of their money on food – especially fast food.

Kelly Brownell's co-authorship of the report is no surprise. Brownell, a director of Yale's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders – has become prominent as the research muscle that backs up and, so, legitimizes the food fascists' political agenda. In 1998, for example, during a push to tax everything from tobacco to beer, Brownell was widely quoted as saying, "To me, there is no difference between Ronald McDonald and Joe Camel. Are we going to have legislation tomorrow? No. But we have to start thinking about this in a more militant way." The Boston Herald quoted Brownell as condemning our society as a "toxic food environment" in which 300,000 people die each year of obesity-related diseases. Astutely, the Herald observed "Brownell's plan [to tax unPC foods] takes a page straight out of the playbook used against the tobacco industry." No wonder the professor won the 1998 Nanny Award presented each year to the person who has "shown outstanding initiative, creativity and determination" in protecting us against ourselves.

In quoting Brownell on Ronald McDonald, the New Republic asked, "Is it really such a crazy idea?" The New Republic had apparently picked up the quote from an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, which warned against a slippery slide. If public policy can be based on the idea of hamburgers causing cancer, how long will it be before people sue because of illness rooted in the special sauce? The New Republic countered that the Wall Street Journal was making a false assumption: namely, that "the human mind is like the canine mind; once legislators get a taste of blood, they won't know where to stop." If the drug war – another moral crusade against ingested substances – is any indication, the Wall Street Journal's assumptions are impeccable.

Fortunately the PC food agenda has stimulated some backlash within other areas of the political correctness. Jody Abrams of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance accuses the likes of Brownell of denigrating fat people. She refers him to the growing body of evidence that concludes "It's less about the number on the scale and more about exercise and what you put in your body." As long as the PC pundits are feasting n each other, perhaps the rest of us will remain free to chomp the chimichangas and General Gao's chicken that have been singled out for special condemnation by the culinary imperialists.

July 13, 2000

Wendy McElroy is author of The Reasonable Woman. See more of her work at and at her personal website.

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