The View
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To ban or not to ban...that’s the difficult question

Consumers will chose foolishly even to the detriment of their health – but maybe we should have more confidence in markets to sort these things out

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2017, 11:19am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2017, 11:07pm

I have a new hero: Gudni Johannesson, Iceland’s president, who has declared that he is ‘fundamentally opposed’ to placing pineapple on the top of pizza, and, tongue-in-cheek, suggested that a law might be needed to prevent this aberration.

President Johannesson is so right on the big pizza question and the online pineappleist trolls who are criticising him need to be called out for what they are: sad and bad.

Mind you I reckon that the great man in Reykjavik does not go far enough: what about banning fruit flavoured beer or the practise of adding strawberries to vegetable salads and as for pineapple and glazed ham, well, don’t get me started.

Johannesson is clearly on to something here and he speaks to my heart but in my guts I sort of know that bans are a dangerous way to go and that when governments get involved in banning things that people really like, the path to hell is paved with dodgy intentions.

As my day job involves working in the food industry I reckon that I might just know more about this banning stuff than others because us humble food purveyors are bombarded by calls for this or that foodstuff to be banned, controlled or, at the very least, put on the bad list.

It might just be possible to argue that this is done with the best of intentions. Some of it is even grounded in scientific evidence but a whole lot of it emanates from do-gooding and self-aggrandizement.

Us humble food purveyors are bombarded by calls for this or that foodstuff to be banned, controlled or, at the very least, put on the bad list

Bureaucrats, who spend their days telling people what to do, just love to pontificate about what’s good and what’s bad for the citizenry. Naturally they know best because self-doubt is not a notable characteristic of their trade.

Out there in food land we are urged to eliminate or use less sugar, salt and unsaturated fats. At various times all manner of foodstuffs have been demonised as Public Enemy Number One, there was chocolate, potatoes, white rice, cheese (plus many other dairy foods) and then of course in the drinks department, wine and so on.

What all these items have in common is that there is now a body of evidence informing us that they are not as bad as they were made out to be and indeed may carry some important health benefits.

It is however hard to make the health case for, say, deep-fried foods, lashings of monosodium glutamate and, quite possibly Big Macs but they hardly need to be consumed on a daily basis.

In recent memory we have seen the introduction of laws banning manufacturers from producing large size bottles of sugar-infused carbonated drinks, MSG figures high on the banned list of many institutions and moves have even be made to ban haggis, Scotland’s national dish, in the United States; mind you weird things happen in the US of A resulting, for example, in raw almonds being banned in the state of California on grounds of salmonella risks.

The bottom line is that banning is a tricky business and it is really hard to draw a line between what’s not good for you and simply accepting that all life carries dangers

Most of these food bans are imposed on health grounds but there is another level of bans that have been imposed for ideological or allegedly environmental reasons. Caviar, for example is on some black lists because of cruelty to sturgeon, Australia and New Zealand ban farmed salmon, again on environmental grounds.

Notoriously Singapore bans the sale of chewing gum because, well, it’s not clear precisely why but the government-knows-best administration that runs the island state apparently has its reasons, so does the Somali government which banned samosas on grounds that they are ‘too Christian’…go figure.

Commonsense has somehow got lost here. The bottom line is that banning is a tricky business and it is really hard to draw a line between what’s not good for you and simply accepting that all life carries dangers.

Allowing bureaucrats to be responsible for line drawing is particularly worrying because their natural instinct is to ban first and ask questions later. ‘Better safe than sorry’, they mumble as they cover their backsides, an art that they have perfected.

Allowing people, sometimes known as consumers, to have a choice often means they will chose foolishly even to the detriment of their health but most people learn from their mistakes and experience makes them wiser. In other words maybe we should have more confidence in markets to sort these things out.

Hopefully the folly of sticking gooey pineapple on top of a pizza will fall out of favour but if it does not, well, there’s no point in sending the pineapple pizza trade underground. The lessons of the American prohibition period should provide a salutary lesson here.

While food bans may be questionable surely there is a case for a law against the public airing of muzak by Kenny G; frankly, there is a limit to what can be tolerated.

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