The Laugh

The Hilarity of Naive Efforts to Regulate Food Marketing

China is going to eliminate food waste and fight obesity in a single stroke of regulation. How, you ask? Operation Empty Plate will expand into law. China will make it a crime to promote food waste, including overeating. The hilarity of naive efforts to regulate food marketing never disappoints.

Stiff Fines for Bad Marketing

Right now, this is a draft law before the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Food service businesses must not trick or tempt customers into buying too much food. Because if they do, they will face fines up to 1,500 dollars. Of course, they get a warning first. But there’s a bonus for business in this deal. They get permission to charge food wasters for leaving food on their plates. Thus the link to Operation Empty Plate.

However, that’s not all. The law also calls for fines against media promoting food waste – this includes overeating. The penalties for this are even harsher, up to 15,000 dollars, or worse, suspension of the business “for rectification.”

A Natural Progression

This law flows quite naturally from a campaign launched in August by President Xi Jinping. In a policy speech that marked the beginning of Operation Clean Plate, he said:

“Waste is shameful and thriftiness is honourable. The amount of food that goes to waste is shocking and distressing.

“Who knows that of our meal in the dish, every grain comes after hard toil? We should still maintain a sense of crisis about food security. The impact of this year’s Covid-19 pandemic has sounded the alarm.”

Xi is not alone in this impulse to regulate the consumption of food. American food policy advocates have tried for years to deal with this challenge. It started with food labeling and dietary guidelines. Tell people what they ought to be eating and how many calories are in their food, and surely they’ll make better choices. Or so the thinking went. But that did not work out. It turns out that people don’t really make strictly rational choices about food. We eat what’s on offer and what the primitive parts of our brains prompt us to eat.

So the next step was to try to regulate bad foods. Tax them and call them out in mandatory labeling. The problem with that is that food makers and marketers are a clever lot. Tax sodas and they are only too happy to sell us more of something else. PepsiCo sells Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. It’s no problem if you wash them down with PepsiCo’s bubly™ sparkling water instead of the brown sweet stuff. Marketers adapt. In fact, that’s a core competency.

Lame Regulations for a Broken Marketplace

Thus we see a long line of lame regulations aimed at a broken marketplace for food. Chile has aggressive regulatory strategies that have yet to bend the curve of obesity trends. Britain is a few years into its drive to regulate food marketing there. Effects on obesity prevalence are undetectable.

The business model for food is designed to reward business for supplying ever more food to a hungry world. So innovation, manufacturing, distribution, and marketing all serve that goal. Sales go up. Profits go up. The population grows fat and happy.

Band-aid regulations will not fix the gaping wound of a business model designed to solve a problem that has evolved into something else. More fundamental changes are necessary.

Click here and here for more on the expansion of Operation Clean Plate in China. For ideas about a more sustainable approach to the food business, click here.

The Laugh, painting by Umberto Boccioni / WikiArt

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


December 23, 2020

5 Responses to “The Hilarity of Naive Efforts to Regulate Food Marketing”

  1. December 23, 2020 at 8:38 am, David Brown said:

    “The business model for food is designed to reward business for supplying ever more food to a hungry world.”

    That reminds me of the Introduction to ‘Food for Nought’ by Ross Hume Hall, PhD, 1976. Excerpts: “Nourishment has undergone a startling transformation…

    A highly individual system of growing and marketing food has been transformed into a gigantic, highly integrated service system in which the object is not to nourish or even to feed, but to force an ever-increasing consumption of fabricated products …

    Man can never be more than what he eats, and one would expect that a phenomenon with such profound effects on health and wellbeing as a radically changed system of supplying nourishment would be thoroughly documented and assessed by the scientific community.

    Such is not the case … Failure to monitor and to appreciate the results of rapidly moving technology produces a brutal effect … ”

  2. December 23, 2020 at 10:27 pm, Chester Draws said:

    It turns out that people don’t really make strictly rational choices about food.

    Mostly they do. They are just not the decisions that others think that they should make.

    It is rational for me to drink more than the recommended alcohol guidelines because I like to drink. If I stop drinking then I lose my enjoyable weekend drinking with friends. I don’t drink to drunk and I don’t drink during the day so it isn’t affecting my life otherwise — but some people have decided for me that it isn’t in my best interest to do so. Well they can shove it!

    I know a lot of people that are both overweight and entirely unconcerned by that. They enjoy food that is “bad” for them. They might enjoy homecooked “good” food more, except that they don’t enjoy cooking it. So their choice is rational — they sacrifice a tiny bit of health for a lot of pleasure.

    I do know some people who are alcoholics, and some who are grossly obese due to overeating. In the majority of the cases those people are either physically or mentally unwell already. The alcohol and food overuse is a consequence of that, not irrationality.

    • December 24, 2020 at 4:56 am, Ted said:

      Thanks Chester. You have an interesting definition of rationality.

  3. December 30, 2020 at 2:27 pm, Adrienne McGuire said:

    Do you know how this would apply to those Youtubers who frequently do the Mukbang-style videos – where they gorge themselves on a large amount of unhealthy food while their viewers watch. They usually talk to the viewers at the same time. I’ve often thought about how wasteful and unhealthy this practice has to be!

    • December 30, 2020 at 2:29 pm, Ted said:

      The suggestion in the referenced articles is that they would be subject to substantial fines.