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California

Troy Senik
Food Fight
California brings the nanny state to the kitchen table.
7 December 2012

California’s new state motto might as well be “Does this dress make me look fat?” No other state comes close to California’s aesthetic obsession, which has birthed innumerable diet and fitness fads and made the gym into the equivalent of a state church. Considered on its merits, it’s a largely unobjectionable trend—laudable, even, for its emphasis on self-improvement. But when wed to two of California’s more unfortunate proclivities—a reflexive, nearly primitive worship of all things “natural” (usually evangelized by someone carrying an iPhone) and an insatiable appetite among government officials for meddling in the most minuscule aspects of everyday life—it spells trouble.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the City Council in Los Angeles, the state’s epicenter of vanity, recently made headlines by expanding its portfolio to include citywide dietary management. Last month, the body unanimously voted to approve a resolution exhorting Angelinos to participate in “meatless Mondays,” a weekly exercise in herbivorousness justified on multiple grounds: from combating obesity (which cynics might note is a malady afflicting some of the council members) to reducing carbon footprints to preventing animal cruelty (apparently tolerable the other six days of the week). It was as if council members dared one another to see how many liberal erogenous zones they could stimulate with a single initiative.

Happily, “meatless Mondays” are only a legislative suggestion for now. But given California’s fixation on micromanaging how its citizens eat, it isn’t hard to imagine a day when such an edict could carry the force of law. Consider all the ways in which California lawmakers have already invaded their constituents’ pantries. Earlier this year, the state implemented a ban on the production and sale of foie gras, the delicacy made from the fattened livers of ducks or geese. Animal-rights groups sold the ban based on concerns about the abusive treatment of the birds used in the process, despite no evidence of any such abuses in California. The prohibition has led to a foodie revolt, with many restaurants circumventing the law (which doesn’t actually ban distribution) by offering the delicacy as a “complimentary” side dish—a practice that PETA is now challenging in court.

In 2005, California attorney general (now state treasurer) Bill Lockyer led a one-man crusade against fast-food establishments and snack-food producers, suing them in an effort to mandate warning labels on products such as potato chips that included the chemical acrylamide, which can be a carcinogen in high doses. Lockyer himself later conceded that the chemical was basically harmless in junk food, but he won his fight. In 2008, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill outlawing the use of trans fats in state-run restaurants, followed shortly thereafter by landmark legislation mandating that restaurant chains publish nutritional information on their menus.

Local government isn’t much better. Bureaucrats at the Los Angeles Unified School District attempted to jettison snack food from student lunches and replace it with designer fare, such as pad thai and quinoa salads—only to see food costs spike, sales plunge, and students toss uneaten meals in the trash. In Santa Clara County and the City of San Francisco, elected officials banned McDonald’s from including toys with Happy Meals, reasoning that the baubles represented a predatory inducement toward junk food consumption. In 2010, Los Angeles city councilwoman Jan Perry (now a mayoral aspirant) spearheaded a successful effort to ban new standalone fast-food establishments in impoverished South Los Angeles, proclaiming: “This is not an attempt to control people as to what they can put into their mouths. This is an attempt to diversify their food options.” Diversity through scarcity?

Golden State residents, ever contradictory, may vote for more heavy-handed government by electing (and reelecting) officials who approve “meatless Mondays” resolutions. But as a practical matter, most Californians reject this frivolity. Sometimes this takes the form of clever end-runs around regulation, such as the complimentary foie gras or McDonald’s selling Happy Meals toys separately for a tiny fee donated to charity. And sometimes, Californians do resist at the ballot box. In November, voters solidly rejected Proposition 37, a measure that sought to scare the public into mandating the labeling of genetically modified food. Election Day also saw voters in the Northern California city of Richmond and the Southern California city of El Monte defeat proposed sin taxes on soda by landslide margins.

Those votes can surely be attributed, at least in part, to California’s live-and-let-live ethos. But apart from concerns about government’s encroachment on individual liberty, people are getting fed up with the governing class’s incomprehensible priorities. Los Angeles City Council members who found time to grandstand about the evils of meat consumption did so while presiding over a city on the precipice of bankruptcy. Lawmakers in Sacramento fret about calorie counts as California is wracked by an ongoing public-finance crisis and sinking to the bottom of nearly every measure of effective public policy. Perhaps they should spend more time focusing on the checkbook and less on the cupboard.

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