Opinion

Israel's Expert Class Pushes It's Agenda Too Far

The new rules mandating red warning labels on unhealthy food is just the kind of thing that spurs populist rebellions

File photo: The popular Osem-produced Bamba snack, on sale in Israel.
Yasmine Shemesh

Two years from now, Israeli shoppers will find a lot of the processed foods they buy will sport bright red labels, warning that the product contains high levels of sodium, saturated fat or sugar. It was a big victory for health advocates. But was it a victory for ordinary people?

Unarguably, Israel suffers very high levels of obesity and diabetes, with one in four women and one in six men categorized as obese. The government had every good reason to intervene because poor health on such a massive scale isn’t simply the private affair of the people who eat badly. Medical treatment, lost work days to sickness and higher mortality rates cost the Israel economy some 16 billion shekels ($4.6 billion) annually, a cost that is borne by the entire public in the form of higher taxes, insurance payments and lower productivity.

Government officials, policy activists, health professionals and the media are anxious to deal with the problem, and the food-labelling rules Israel has adopted are one step in that direction.

When lawmakers approved the measure a little over two weeks ago, they all expressed great satisfaction (despite the two-year delay in imposing the new standards and an exemption for products too tiny to host the red label). The activists were especially joyful because they had won in the face of intense lobbying by food manufacturers and importers. By contrast, MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) called the activists the “lobby for the public.”

Not a pot in sight

The public’s lobby? Three of the four people highlighted in the victory lap articles in the press are health professionals with PhDs (two doctors and a clinical dietitian) who head health-advocacy organizations. The fourth is a full-time political activist dedicated to protecting the media from the wealthy and powerful. There wasn’t a single housewife, middle-aged man with a pot belly or a hamburger-snorting teen among them.

All four activists claimed to have been speaking for the public, or for the public’s well-being, and fighting food lobbyists who speak for their bosses and profits. But the reality is the battle lines aren’t so clearly drawn: The public has shown its food preferences by the simple fact that they buy the kind of stuff that their self-appointed advocates want them to avoid.

Not just in Israel, but all over the world, as The New York Times has been documenting through a series of articles, the minute ordinary people have a chance to buy highly processed foods, they abandon their traditional diets. They are suffering the consequences, but that’s clearly a choice they are making.

Healthy-food advocates will answer back that consumers are victims of incessant advertising starting at a young age that weans them off carrots and onto potato chips. But whether that’s the decisive factor, or whether it’s simply that the great majority of people like potato chips more than carrots is debatable. In defense of potato chips, they were designed with the idea of appealing to human tastes whereas a carrot was designed (or evolved) to hold a carrot plant in the ground. It’s hard to imagine even the most audacious marketing campaign (“Can you can judge a man by the size of a carrot he munches?”) would fundamentally change that.

You. Yes, you. Buy that carrot

It was the power of the expert class, which includes economists, scientists, policy wonks, doctors to name a few, and their claims not just to expertise but to be the spokesmen for the people that has had a lot to do with the explosion of populism in America and Europe.

The experts may have all the “studies show” data on their side, but the fact is they often know far less than they claim and public may just not be interested. On diet, for instance, experts have made far-reaching claims that proved later not be true or less true than they claimed.

This isn’t a defense of the know-nothingness or “alternative facts” that populism has spurred, personified in the ignoramus-in-chief now occupying the White House. But it is a call for more modesty on the part of the experts and for less social-policy engineering. Israeli food packages contain quite a bit of nutritional information, and the media and social media are replete with articles about what scientists say is healthy. The red labels smack of elitist bullying: “We’re not going to stop harassing you, the shopper, until you do what we tell you to and buy that carrot.”

In this context, it should come as no surprise that fresh from their labelling victory, the health activists are already plotting new initiatives, such as taxes and price controls on unhealthy foods and limits on advertising.

What next? Maybe a chip inserted into each package of Oreos that administers an electric shock and sets off alarm bells when a shopper takes one off the store shelf.

These kinds of rules not only smack of bullying, but they come at a cost that will inevitably be passed on to consumers as manufacturers and importers seek to meet the new requirements. The public is not only getting labels is doesn’t want or need, but it going to have to pay extra for them to boot.