Regulating food companies: restricting or empowering?


Dr Garrath Williams, Chair of the I Family consumer awareness, ethical acceptability and policy implications work stream says:

We might think rules stop us doing what we want, but sometimes they give us the power to act.”

 Don’t do this! Don’t do that! – Rules and regulations often look like obstacles. As individuals we may feel that rules take away our freedom. Companies often protest at red-tape and regulation. When it comes to food and diet, companies and consumers often fear that regulations around healthy eating would interfere with what they want to do.

But do rules always take away our freedom? As a philosopher, I think rules are much more interesting than this. Rules can actually give us new abilities and powers. This is as true for organisations as it is for individuals.

One great example of the power of rules is language. Every language works on the basis of rules – rules about how different sounds should be used, and how different words should be put together. In a very trivial sense, those rules restrict our freedom – we can’t just go around making any old sounds with our voices. In a much more important sense, rules give us a whole new set of freedoms and powers. Without those rules, we could never tell other people how we see the world, let them know what we remember, or explain what we intend to do.

Moral and legal rules are a bit different. It’s true that they sometimes get in the way of what we want to do. But they also give us a lot of freedom and power. If we can count on other people telling the truth, keeping promises, or taking account of our rights, we are freed from all sorts of worries and dangers. We can get on with our lives, and we can do all sorts of things together – whether it’s pursuing relationships or running a company.

In debates about healthy diets, many proposals for regulation are raised – around food labeling, food composition, or food and drink marketing. Opponents often present these rules as limitations on freedom – both for companies and consumers.

Advocates of regulation often reply that regulations create new freedoms. Food labeling rules improve consumers’ knowledge about products, or a ban on trans-fats frees us from worry about an artificial and unhealthy ingredient. Still – critics point out – these rules may lead to additional costs to consumers. Or perhaps consumers’ gains come at the price of commercial freedoms.

But there’s another way that rules can create freedom. Well-designed regulation can enable companies, not just consumers. Most people who work for food and drink companies would prefer not to undermine consumers’ health and well-being – especially the health of children who can’t make informed choices. Still, companies continue to push energy-dense, highly processed foods and drinks.

The blunt fact is that companies don’t have a choice. They can only survive if they maximize sales, and highly processed foods based on cheap ingredients give greater scope for profit. Even worse, companies can’t even admit to the problem. No Director or spokesperson would ever say that their company has no choice but to undermine children’s health.

So companies can’t really support children’s health, and they can’t even admit their inability to do so. And this is another case where rules can create freedom. Regulations on food composition or food marketing mean companies don’t need to worry about competitors making greater profits by behaving less responsibly. So they can give companies the freedom to do what they say they want to do – to support parents and not to undermine children’s health.

Of course, the rules need to be well-designed. That’s hard – especially because companies can’t admit that they need these rules, and often fight plans to regulate. But that doesn’t alter the fact that regulations are not always obstacles. Instead, rules can give people – and companies – the power to do what they want.

Garrath Williams is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Lancaster University

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