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Should Lawmakers Care How Much Fish Is in a Sustainable Fish Finger?

Choose education over regulation when food companies abuse terms like "local" and "sustainable."

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Fish and chips
Ye Liew / Dreamstime

Earlier this week, while waiting for a flight home, I ate lunch at the O'Hare Airport outpost of The Publican, a fantastic, meat-centric Chicago restaurant. I've eaten at their downtown location several times over the years, sampling from their menu foods such as beef heart tartare, boudin blanc, and skate wing. The foods at the airport location are a little less interesting, though still far better than most airport food.

After paying my bill and running to catch my flight, I noticed a cooler outside the restaurant that featured a variety of beverages. Garden-variety sodas (including orange Fanta), bottled waters, energy drinks, and the like. None would have been out of place at your local 7-Eleven. Then I glanced at the top of the case and was stopped, bemusedly, in my tracks. It featured signage billing the sodas and whatnot within as "Local, Sustainable, Delicious."

Hmm. Orange-flavored Fanta, a friend pointed out, may be "delicious," but it—along with everything else in the case—was neither "local" nor "sustainable" by any reasonable definition of these words.

I halted to snap a photo of the case. Though I almost missed my flight in the process, it was a worthwhile delay. The photo says so much, I think, about the lengths marketers in general, food marketers specifically, and, here, restaurants will go to choose language that tells us what we want to hear in an effort to earn our business.

The next morning, still chuckling about the experience thanks to friends who'd commented on a Facebook post I'd made about the local, sustainable, and delicious canned and bottled drinks, I happened upon a story about this week's season debut of Tricks of the Restaurant Trade, a show from Britain's Channel 4 that uncovers artifices restaurants use to attract customers and maximize profits, and educates customers about how not to get snookered.

The show, which debuted last year, explores "how consumers can get the best experience when dining out."

"Every restaurant uses glowing adjectives and enticing descriptions to encourage their customers to buy more of its food," The Daily Mail reported this week, in a piece on the debut of the show's current season. "But if you see the words 'hand-made,' 'home-cooked,' or 'fresh,' then don't fall for the claims hook, line and sinker as the food may not live up to its label."

If this show were American, I suspect a large part of its focus—like most local television consumer investigations—would be to call for more regulations to rein in the big, evil food companies that deceive us. Thankfully, after watching a few clips from Tricks of the Restaurant Trade, I detected no such bent to the program.

What I did see, though, was some good, basic consumer education.

The idea that food sellers (or anyone selling anything at all) want to make their products appear somehow better than they are is hardly anything new. Neither are investigations into the practice. A Wall St. Journal video from 2014, for example, looked at "sly tricks [restaurants use] to get you to spend more for your meal."

In legal circles, the practice is known as "puffery," which this brilliantly titled article, "The World's Most Trusted Article on Puffery," describes eloquently. Puffery falls short of fraud.

Nevertheless, these practices have faced increased bureaucratic scrutiny in recent years. EU regulators are currently looking to crack down down on food producers that market foods of different qualities in different countries without declaring so by, for example, marketing higher-quality juice or bread in France than in Poland but selling both under the same label.

"I will not accept that in some parts of Europe, people are sold food of lower quality than in other countries, despite the packaging and branding being identical," said Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, in a speech last month announcing the new guidelines. "Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers," he added.

Neither, I might add, do Slovaks and other Europeans necessarily deserve more regulators' fingers in their fish.

In recent years, there have been some rumblings about bringing the fish-finger approach to the United States. Thankfully, those plans seem to have been held at bay for now.

Tricks of the Restaurant Trade and investigations like it serve as valuable tools for educating consumers and help mitigate the need for costly, burdensome, and intrusive regulations. Cheers to more of the former and less of the latter.

NEXT: Getting the State Out of Marriage

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  1. What I did see, though, was some good, basic consumer education.

    I simply pay too much in taxes to be burdened with self-informed – or, for that matter, uninformed – decision making.

    1. I simply pay too much in taxes to be burdened with self-informed – or, for that matter, uninformed – decision making.

      “People want decisions made for them, not by them.” – Emperor Zwordar V.

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  2. On a serious note: Baylen, I still cannot access the 2014 Wall St. Journal video via the link that you posted in your article. After a brief search I found this , yet it does not seem to me to be the same video that you referenced.

  3. If you see the words “fruity”, “cheesy”, “chocolaty” or “homemade taste” on the label it’s a clear sign that you should lower your expectations, those are adjectives that indicate there’s no actual fruit, cheese, or chocolate in that factory-produced food. “Frooty”, “cheezy”, “chocklatey” and “ho-made” indicate there may not be any actual food in the package.

    1. true: the harder they sell, the (likelier) crappier the underlying product

      that said, most of the so-called “Factory” food in America is better quality and healthier than the ‘all natural’, ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’ products you find in smaller, poorer countries.

      Americans have developed a fixation on the idea that ‘Big Corporations’ are constantly trying to sell them poison, and that ‘smaller’ always equals ‘better’. Consequently, modern brands are constantly trying to pose like they’re an artisanal/mom+pop/family farm/handmade/locally-sourced outfit. Its frankly a bit bizarre, and its more a reflection of the anti-capitalist neuroses of the American consumer than it is anything to do with the inherent quality of modern foodstuffs.

      1. Gil,

        On a scale of 1 to 10– 1 being when you make that argument that SJW Millenials are responsible for Trump’s election and 10 being that time you threatened to sue me for laying claim to the username G1LMORE for a couple of hours, how triggered are you by 18-yos going to a Republican Party meeting when they may infact not be Republicans? Just curious. Thanks in advance,

    2. I don’t want anything that is “ho-made”, except possibly blowjobs.

  4. A Wall St. Journal video from 2014…

    The link is to a youtube page which says the video is unavailable.

    1. The link is to a youtube page which says the video is unavailable.

      I pointed this out as well brec (see my comment at 9:10), hoping that Baylen would update his article.

      I can understand why he may not read the comment section of H&R, given the treatment some many of the other authors receive.

  5. Governments have worked very hard to soften the heads off it’s citizens and it makes them very angry to see private business profiting from their efforts.

  6. As a libertarian I absolutely think that our governments should have laws against Puffery. Little white lies are still lies. A company or business entity shouldn’t be allowed to openly and legally lie to the public. Do I think there should be some gargantuan government bureaucracy to enforce it? Hell no. Something simple and straight forward on the books that could easily be applied in civil courts would/should be ample enough to discourage corporations from lying about anything.

    1. ittle white lies are still lies. A company or business entity shouldn’t be allowed to openly and legally lie to the public

      What claim of fact is anyone making that isn’t factual?

      You’re arguing for regulation of speech.

      Marketing is deceptive, yes. In related news, water is wet.

      1. So you are going to post your true full name, address, phone number, religion, and political affiliation?
        These truths will greatly help the trolls and flamers.
        Thanks you.

      2. “What claim of fact is anyone making that isn’t factual?”

        You clearly state marketing is deceptive not all marketing is. Here you are in your own post admitting there’s a problem.

        “You’re arguing for regulation of speech.”

        Yes. Giant entities known as corporations enjoy some pretty ridiculous benefits that we do not. Given their size and influence they should absolutely have restrictions.

        “Marketing is deceptive, yes. In related news, water is wet.”

        It doesn’t have to be. There’s no good reason it should be.

        1. Wetness is inherent to water.

          There are other liquids that will not get you wet, but water is not one of them.

    2. Laws against fraud (and puffery etc) are either redundant or useless.

      If crime was committed may does it matter how it was committed? If fraud was used to commit a crime, it is just more evidence of intent to commit the crime, but it doesn’t make the crime any worse.

      If no crime was committed, then what harm was done by the fraud?

      Suppose I brag about how fast my car is. Others brag, we hold a bragdrag race, the winner is determined. Is there any harm?

      Now suppose someone believes my brags and offers to buy the car for an exorbitant amount. If I take him up, it’s true he’s a fool for buying without trying, but I have stolen his money by fraud. Does the fraud make the crime worse? No. All it really does is show my intent to steal his money.

      1. Intent in our legal system and our society has a lot to do with judgements and sentences and it absolutely should.

        You’re arguing that a child murderer should get the same sentencing as someone who accidentally kills a kid in a car accident.

    3. You fail to understand.

      Fraud–saying Pollack is Cod.

      Puffery– saying that this is the best Pollack you will ever eat. That it’s full of all the foodie buzzwords that are vague enough to sound great and mean little. No lying, just elaborating

  7. Everyone interested in the relation of food descriptions on restaurant menus to actual food needs to read my buddy Dan Jurafsky’s book:

    http://amzn.to/2zqW819

    It also has a fascinating history of catsup and soy sauce (which turn out to come from the same source). Loads of fun and you can learn some basic corpus linguistics in the bargain.

    1. catsup and soy sauce (which turn out to come from the same source)

      mostly sugar?

  8. One of my less-than-ancap fantasies is a Constitutional Amendment which would let people opt out of regulations and laws in every sense of what is done to/for them, without opting out of paying for them. Not that I’d want to pay for them, but that’s the only way it could ever happen.

    For instance, on the criminal side, I could opt out of laws against murder, and anyone who killed me could not be prosecuted. Not that I’d want to, but just as an extreme example. More reasonably, I could opt out of all food regulations. I could not sue, in any manner, anyone who served me bad food that would have been detected or prevented by government regulations.

    Ditto for cars. They’d still have to meet environmental standards, gas mileage, safe brakes etc — anything which affected other people. But seat belts, air bags, side-impact beams — companies could make and sell such cars to people who signed away their right to be protected by Big Nanny.

    I am pretty certain such a market exists, and after a few years, more and more people would participate. Maybe not in cars or murder immunity, but in a lot of areas. And eventually the bureaucracy required would shrink simply due to lack of demand.

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  11. “‘I will not accept that in some parts of Europe, people are sold food of lower quality than in other countries, despite the packaging and branding being identical,’ said Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, in a speech last month announcing the new guidelines. ‘Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers,’ he added.”

    I was going to sarcastically say that I was glad he didn’t have anything better to be doing with his time, but then I realized he really doesn’t.

  12. I’ll fish your finger!

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  14. The orange sodas were from the 7-11 just outside the airport, so local.
    The way canned sodas are packaged, they are eternal, so sustainable. Not to mention they sustain the seller.
    Delicious is a value judgement not subject to being right or wrong.
    No harm, no foul.

  15. “Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers,”

    This guy really is so easy to hate. No wonder people across Europe are rebelling against the bureaucratic monstrosity that is the EU.

    1. Plus he’s just wrong. Slovaks deserve everything they get.

  16. Do you like fish sticks?

  17. Dont confuse regulations about the content of a product, versus regulations about the labeling. The former disrupts the free market. The latter does not. Labeling of a product could easy be considered as an informal contract, promising a quality in the product that a consumer is paying for. If that quality is deceptive, or a falsehood, then the consumer was essentially stolen from. The core responsibility of government is to oversee and enforce contract disputes. Rules about labeling are nothing more then preemptive contract enforcement.

    The issues with sustainable, natural, etc, is that there is no standard by which they are defined, so marketting misuses them as they would any other adjective. But there are a number of labeling terms that we happily allow the government to define for us. Like grams, carbohydrates, transfats, etc. if it helps the free exchange of good flow more easily, why should a libertarian have a problem with it?.

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