Food Policy

What a True Food Movement Looks Like

Much has been made of late of a "food movement" that would restrict our right to make our own food choices. But victories for food freedom in Denmark, California, and (hopefully) New York City show the true food movement is something else altogether.


Last week the government of Denmark announced it would scrap a controversial "fat tax" the country enacted last year. The Danish government also announced it would not be moving forward with a planned tax on sugar and sugary foods.

The Danish fat tax had targeted all foods containing more than 2.3% saturated fat, meaning it impacted not just potato chips but many popular foods considered by some to be healthy options—including meat, fish, dairy, eggs, avocados, chocolate, and nuts. 

Is this rejection of food sin taxes in Denmark part of a larger movement against laws that meddle with food freedom? I think so, but first let's take a look at what made Denmark turn against its taxes so quickly.

First, the fat tax appears to have been a failure as a public-health measure. Reports indicate it didn't reduce obesity. The fat tax "failed to change Danes' eating habits," reported Agence France-Presse.

Second, the law brought about a host of unintended—if predictable—consequences.

Some consumers were forced to pay higher prices. Or they simply got less for their money. Producers whose products were subject to the tax reduced the size of their food packages in order to keep post-tax prices the same.

In response, many Danes simply shifted their buying habits, choosing to purchase fatty foods in neighboring countries like Sweden and Germany—where food prices run close to 30% less than in Denmark.

Meanwhile, the fat tax and related administrative costs were particularly hard on small businesses.

As a result, the fat tax cost the country's struggling economy more than 1,000 jobs.

And while the tax helped the Danish government raise more than $200 million in new tax revenue, with job losses and sales taxes paid abroad, there's no telling how much old tax revenue the government lost as the result of the fat tax.

I reached out seeking comment from columnist Mark Bittman of the New York Times, who positively gushed over the Danish fat tax last year when it took effect.

"Well lookee here: the inevitable move toward taxing unhealthful foods to raise income and discourage damaging diets has begun," Bittman announced last year. He also predicted a wave of similar taxes would sweep across Europe and suggested the United States "needs these taxes more than any country in the world"—predicting "a serious celebration" if and when such laws come stateside.

Bittman hasn't written about the law since it took effect around this time last year, hasn't discussed its repeal, and didn't reply to my email asking for comment.

But Bittman has written recently about the staggering defeat of a set of ballot initiatives in two California cities that would have imposed a tax on sodas sold there.

A ballot measure in El Monte, CA, in Los Angeles County, was defeated earlier this month by a more than 3-1 margin. In Richmond, CA—just outside San Francisco—a similar measure failed by a 2-1 margin.

If you're beginning to see a pattern—the repeal of the Danish fat-tax and the rejection of soda taxes in two very different parts of California—then consider, too, that a lawsuit challenging New York City's looming soda ban (which I've written about for Reason here and here) is currently in its early stages.

If repeal of the fat tax is part of a larger movement against policies that restrict food freedom, it's also noteworthy who is leading this backlash.

Take Denmark. The fat tax came about under a "right-wing government" that is no longer in power. A ruling coalition of three left-of-center parties, meanwhile—the Social Democrats, Social Liberals, and the Socialist People's Party—is responsible for scrapping the fat tax.

In New York City, an unelected health department board made up entirely of appointees of Republican-turned-Independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg voted unanimously to approve the soda ban with the mayor's full support. The broad coalition suing to overturn the soda ban, on the other hand, includes the local Teamsters union.

And in California, the same Richmond voters who re-elected President Obama by a 2-1 margin (extrapolating from Contra Costa County data) and who elected a Green Party mayor six years ago rejected the city's soda tax measure by a 2-1 margin. Similar numbers hold true in El Monte.

It's perhaps too early to offer a conclusion about what all this means. Suffice to say that the facts show that some of the primary opposition to restrictions on food freedom is coming from people and groups that typically reside on the left–sometimes even in response to regulations proposed and enacted by their more conservative counterparts.

There's been much talk of late of a growing "food movement"—one that would use the power of government to restrict and shape our food choices—and whether it yields real power.

I think Denmark's elected officials, California's voters, and New York City's Teamsters have shown there is a food movement. But it is not a movement that seeks to use government to punish some food choices over others. Instead, the real food movement—a positive campaign that embraces freedom of choice—is demonstrating its growing and widespread power.

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  1. The Danish fat tax had targeted all foods containing more than 2.3% saturated fat, meaning it impacted not just potato chips but many popular foods considered by some to be healthy options?including meat, fish, dairy, eggs, avocados, chocolate, and nuts.

    I wouldn’t include chocolate in the “healthy” list.

    1. I would. It has lots of antioxidants, and can help some chicks become less bitchy.

      1. Hell, once a month I would classify it as medical chocolate.

    2. Get the stuff with more cocoa and less sugar.

    3. I wouldn’t include chocolate in the “healthy” list.

      Why not? I hear it’s now good for you.

      This is the problem (aside from the fact that it’s none of the government’s fucking business). The definition of what’s “healthy” changes constantly. Chocolate is a good example and there are countless other foods that were once considered terrible only to later redeem themselves.

      Wine, coffee, eggs… fat is bad, oh wait, now it’s only saturated fat.

      What happens when a food makes the government’s bad boy list only later to be shown it has benefits? We get to wade through the bureaucracy for years to get the law changed? People (let alone governments) aren’t smart enough to make these decisions.

      Carbon taxes anyone?

      1. Saccharin is an example example of unmarking something.

        1. s/example/excellent/

          1. I was about to mock you but you didnt put the g on the end, so nevermind.

            1. I was wondering if anyone would notice that!

              Excellent way to start the morning, thank you!

      2. Haven’t you heard? Saturated fat is on its way off the bad list, to!

        But that one will take years for even the media to start reporting on.

  2. There’s been much talk of late of a growing “food movement”?one that would use the power of government to restrict and shape our food choices?and whether it yields real power.

    It seems a logical conclusion that when govt subsidized healthcare is fully online and deeper pockets are needed to fund it, people will be taxed in some form for “poor food choices.” It could be health credits for being a recommended weight or heavy taxes on comfort foods, but it will impact our food choices regardless. It doesn’t matter what people actually want, it’s a cash cow for the Feds just waiting for them to come along and milk it.

  3. Wearing a kilt and eating haggis like a True Scotsman?

  4. Math is hard if you’re a Nobel laureate.

    While the United States does have a long-run budget problem, Social Security is not a major factor in that problem.


    Also this morning, on Hipster Douchebag Focus Group, I learned that we have cut spending to the bone. TO THE BONE, I say!

    The only solution is to raise taxes. And not those giveaway rates of the Clinton nineties, either. It’s completely outrageous to think evil millionaires and billionaires making upwards of two hundred thousand dollars per annum should be able to keep fifty (or even forty) cents of every dollar they earn, when the noble yeomen of the middle class need bigger teevees and faster wifi.

    1. SFd the link.

      1. I presume it’s Krugnuts anyway?

    2. Disclaimer: Self-employed, 2011 AGI of $42K.

      I wish I could keep 50% of every dollar I earned!

      (Fed, State, Local taxes, Licenses and Fees exceeds 50%)

  5. And
    inquiring hipster douchebags want to know:

    Why is there no widespread clamor for imposition of a massive financial speculation tax?

  6. SFd the link.


    Oh, well, it’s Krugabe. NYT.

  7. Suffice to say that the facts show that some of the primary opposition to restrictions on food freedom is coming from people and groups that typically reside on the left–sometimes even in response to regulations proposed and enacted by their more conservative counterparts

    I wouldn’t read too much into this – for example, the NYC Council (which leans left, in case you were wondering) love this stuff and when one of their own becomes the next mayor I’m expecting a lot more of it. Bloomberg’s only more “conservative” than the council because, well… anyone is. And the Teamsters probably have their own motivations which don’t necessarily reflect left/right politics – maybe they represent soda bottlers or something.

    1. Not everyone who voted for Obama is a complete idiot. Sometimes something is so obviously a disaster that both left and right can agree to scrap it.

      Example: van cams and red light cameras in Hawaii a few years back. Enacted almost unanimously by the legislature, repealed almost unanimously the next year.

  8. Workers of the World, Unite!

    Hostess posted sales of $2.5 billion in 2011 but lost $341 million and lacked the cash flow to hold out through the bakers union work stoppage that had only lost a few days of production so far. One reason is a labor-rule burden that by comparison makes Detroit look like Hong Kong.

    The snack giant endured $52 million in workers’ comp claims in 2011, according to its bankruptcy filing this January. Hostess’s 372 collective-bargaining agreements required the company to maintain 80 different health and benefit plans, 40 pension plans and mandated a $31 million increase in wages and health care and other benefits for 2012.

    Union work rules usually required cake and bread products to be delivered to a single retail location using two separate trucks. Drivers weren’t allowed to load their own vehicles, and the workers who loaded bread weren’t allowed to load cake. On most delivery routes, another “pull up” employee moved products from back rooms to shelves.

    1. Wow, this is the first time I’ve ever heard about Hostess’ financial problems!

  9. How could any reasonable rational man expect a single worker to load bread AND cakes on the same truck?

    This illustrates the depravity and heartlessness of vulture capitalism.

    1. I once spent a summer years ago in a union shop. That was exactly the attitude. There are a few individuals who were exceptions, but most workers would refuse to wipe dog shit off their boots if it wasn’t in their job description.

  10. The food fight is far from over. I suspect that people were reacting to the increase in the cost of food rather than it being a backlash on restrictions on freedom. And people are reminded constantly about the cost of food every week when they make the trip to the grocery store. The Bittmans of the world will look for ways to impose these restrictions on the public such that the cost to the voters will not be readily apparent. I respect Mark Bittman for the recipes and simplified techniques that he’s shared. But he really needs to stay away from public policy advocacy.

  11. These laws are all so indirect as to be useless. Obviously many of the non-obese drink sodas and/or eat fatty foods, and many of the obese don’t. So the problem needs to be tackled directly: tax the obese.

    It’s all very simple. In the month of your birthday you’ll be required to visit your local post office, where there will be scales, along with something to measure height. You’ll take off your shoes like at the airport and stand on a scale, which will spot you a generous 10 pounds for clothes. Your BMI will be automatically calculated from your height and weight, and you’ll get a printed receipt with your tax bill, though I’m not sure what that would be. Maybe $20 per excess point? Or do we go whole hog (as it were) and try to fix the deficit by making it $500 per point?

    One reason this idea is so brilliant is that it oppresses the poor in just the right way: if it causes them to go hungry, then they’ll lose weight, which is the whole point. I don’t see how the Bittmans of the world can object to this.

    1. Or do we go whole hog (as it were) and try to fix the deficit by making it $500 per point?

      Wow! Nine years ago I was on a doctor-prescribed diet we had reduced to 1000 Calories per day, and I was exercising two hours per day and still my weight kept going up to where I had a 55.5 BMI. That put me 25.5 points past “obese” for a $12,750 bill.

      One reason this idea is so brilliant is that it oppresses the poor in just the right way: if it causes them to go hungry, then they’ll lose weight, which is the whole point.

      A lot of them will die. Michael Edelman (1964-1992) literally starved to death still weighing over 600 pounds. A question for the “Calories In-Calories Out” crowd: How do you starve with more than 300 pounds of stored food inside your body?

      1. Who knows?

        I suspect that at a certain point the human body reaches a tipping point and excess fat simply becomes inaccessible. I suspect the real mega-fatties have glandular/genetic issues that pushes their bodies to becoming enormous. Combine genetic predisposition with incredibly cheap calorie-dense food and the result are human blobs. In decades/centuries past I suspect the thousand-pounders would have simply been rotund.

        For normal people, if the goes ins < goes outs, weight loss occurs.

        BTW, a anecdote of one a statistic maketh not.

        1. BTW, a anecdote of one a statistic maketh not.

          You would be amazed at how many of the world’s fattest men have starved to death trying to lose weight.

          As far as it’s “accessiblity,” fat tissue has active metabolic processes. It is not just an inert dumping ground for excess calories.

          For normal people, if the goes ins < goes outs, weight loss occurs.

          Not so. Study after study shows calorie restriction will reduce a subject’s (human or animal) body weight to a certain point, then it will stop. The same goes for even doubling calories. Only so much weight is gained, then it stops. When allowed to eat “ad libitum,” most subjects’ weights will return to their previous range.

      2. Obviously everyone reacts differently, but there are many, many medications that cause you to gain weight. Antidepressants are a big one. Parkinson’s type drugs are another.

      3. The “calories in-calories out” works at the cell level. However the process of using and storing fat is enormously complicated at the organism level. It isn’t at all important how much you eat as what you eat. Simplest form: Any calories from carbs above what are immediately needed by the muscles are stored, and if you’re still eating carbs the body will never dig into the fat stores for energy,in fact, it will digest muscle before fat. As long as your blood stream is full of insulin, fat cannot exit (as in chemically impossible) the adipose cells to be used by the body as energy. So there’s how you starve to death with 300 pounds of stored food. The door was locked.

        1. As an example, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a coke is 730 calories, and 150g of carbs. The commonly accepted theory of macro “calories in-calories out” states that the person who ate only this should lose weight, because obviously 730 calories a day is ridiculously inadequate for running a human body…way less coming in than going out. However, the 150g of carbs is enough to ensure that insulin levels do not drop and no stored fat can be used for energy. So the body will start burning muscle tissue to make up for the lack in calories. This is how putting enormously fat people on super calorie restriction diets kills them without them losing a pound of fat. Their poor hearts are already doing max load, when the body starts cannibalizing muscle it’s only a matter of time.

          1. when the body starts cannibalizing muscle it’s only a matter of time.

            …eventually the body gets around to cannibalizing the heart muscle for protein and “argh!” That’s the most common way for starving people to die.

        2. Bravo, madam! The door was locked. His fat could not feed him for the same reason he became obese to begin with.

          I used to have a ravenous appetite. I would wake up in the middle of the night, dragged up from a deep sleep by my hunger. Then, in connection with a springtime event at my workplace I ate a high-fat, low-carb diet for two-weeks. I took them at their word and ate as much as I wanted, more than triple the calories I had been. I lost 8 pounds, so I stayed on it and lost an adult person worth of weight before the end of the year.

  12. Soda was banned in NYC? There oughta be a movement!

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