Government intervention on nutrition

By Sun Juanjuan

Nutrition is so essential to health that either under-nutrition or over-nutrition can give rise to risks on health. For a long time and even nowadays, the fight against malnutrition has been a high concern within the objective of food security. However, when the consumption of food is enriched by a variety of foods products, a different concern is raised that people suffer from over-nutrition, as it is the case with obesity. Though the Government intervenes in many aspects of food nutrition, whether it can be justified by the public health concern or not is still a subject of debate.

Generally, two forms of Governmental intervention as regard to food nutrition are familiar with consumers.

The first one is voluntary guidance for a healthier food choice. Nowadays, health is a high concern for consumers when buying food. As a result, not only enriched food products flourished into markets but also nutritional information, which made it difficult for consumers to distinguish what is relevant and what is not, or even what is actually real from what is false information. In this regard, governmental information is a source of authority. Besides, it is also part of nutritional policy to guide the consumer for a healthier diet. For example, “My Plate” has been recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture in the U.S.A. Certainly, with the rising considerations on health, consumers will pay more and more attention to those suggestions. However, those governmental suggestions may be also influenced by the food industry.[1] Moreover, as to consumers, the final decision when choosing food is eventually a personal choice.

Secondly, it is the mandatory regulation in the form of labeling requirements that give consumers a clearer picture of a product’s property, especially its nutritional value. To meet growing needs for nutrition and health, health claims and advertisements are widely used to promote food, in particular to the so-called healthy food or functional food. In order to fight against this type of misleading information, a law was introduced to create a universal, government-run labeling system. For example, according to the Chinese Food Safety Law , “labels and instructions for foods and food additive shall not have false or exaggerated content and no preventive or therapeutic functions shall be mentioned” (Article 48). Besides, “the content of food advertisements shall be genuine and legal; no false or exaggerated content shall be allowed; no preventive or therapeutic functions shall be mentioned” (Article 54).

It is interesting to note that for a long time, famous stars were invited to promote certain food products that had therapeutic functions. However, they were proved wrong by consumer’s practices. Against this context, this law also states that civic associations and other organizations or individuals should be jointly liable with food producers and traders if they recommend foods in any false advertising and cause damage to the legal right of consumers (Article 55). However, even though, the regulation on the health claim has brought about the opposition since it is against the right, namely free to speech, from perspective of food industry.

In addition to these types of governmental intervention, Denmark has used the law to fight. Denmark became the first country in the world to ban the industrial use of trans-fatty acids in foods. And recently, it moved again to introduce a tax on foods high in saturated fat, namely the “fat tax” . Each time, it was followed by critics from the opposition, arguing the negative effect on the economy. For example, for the former, the EU Commission filed an infringement proceeding in 2005 against Denmark since the law may constitute a technical barrier to internal market. But finally the Commission dropped this proceeding in 2007 given increased scientific evidence on the health hazard of trans-fats. As for the latter, the food industry opposed that the fat tax would increase the cost and also distorts the competition.

Certainly, there is no doubt that some official regulation is necessary to ensure public health from the perspective of food safety. However, intervention in the area of nutrition is not the same as food safety regulation. Food safety relates to permission to access markets, i.e. only food which complies with legal safety requirements can enter a market. However, food nutrition can be applied to improve food quality. Serving as a comparative advantage, it provides the food operator with a weapon to meet the growing demands and thus gain the market share. For this reason, when it comes to the dietary supplements in the U.S.A., although the FDA was aimed at tightening the regulation on this nutrition orientated food, it eventually caused a deregulation of the market.

Besides, the supply of vitamin-enriched or mineral-fortified food provides a mean to solve the issue of malnutrition. In view of this, the engagement of the food industry to produce enriched food is welcome. Also, when it comes to choosing food, consumers may have different needs, preferences or values, which exert an influence on their final decision. For instance, for some people, the taste of the product or its convenience may override the safety consideration. Besides, in addition to freedom of choice, keeping a healthy diet is also a matter of personal responsibility. In this case, governmental intervention in the nutrition area may have a negative impact on the interests of the industry or consumer choices. Therefore, a major challenge that comes to mind in this context is balancing the interest of industry, the right of the consumers and the public interest.

[1] Marion Nestle. Food politics, University of California Press, 2003.


A propos sunjuanjuan

Doctorante - Programme Lascaux
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