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.