Vegans of the World: Unite!

Here’s this from Mark Bittman’s blog today:

A couple of representatives of the Federal Trade Commission, evidently stung by my column last week (in which I called the agency “spineless”), scheduled a phone call to remind me that the F.T.C. doesn’t have the ability to pass legislation that determines how Big Food markets to children.

I knew that. But that doesn’t mean the F.T.C. needs to praise the industry for its ridiculously transparent self-regulation scheme. Here’s Jon Leibowitz, agency chairman, quoted in The Times: “The industry’s uniform standards are a significant advance and exactly the type of initiative the commission had in mind when we started pushing for self-regulation more than five years ago.”

So clearly the F.T.C. can “push.” And what’s it pushing for? “Federal trade” that benefits consumers? No: self-regulation. A scam.

Look, consumers don’t have the ability to regulate Big Food either. But at least when something is a shameful attempt to continue to defraud the public we can say so. So should the F.T.C.

Seems fair enough, except for one point–and it’s a point that is too often overlooked in popular discussions about food, health, and the environment. Bittman’s remark that “consumers don’t have the ability to regulate Big Food either” is the most self-defeating phrase I’ve read in a long while. Of course we have the power to regulate what Big Food sells! Big Food is nothing without consumers. Consumers, however, seem to have forgotten the extent of our collective power. Lulled into outrage by the flaccid argument that we’re all victims of absurd marketing strategies, we’ve chosen to focus our ire on the federal regulation of those strategies. To which I say: red herring.

Look, I have no problem with regulating cynical marketing gimmicks, but if it happens without revived consumer activism it’s a total waste of time. I make these comments well aware that many consumers lack access to a diversity of healthy food, as well as educational resources for eating well. But most Americans–and certainly the ones who have the power to make big changes in how we eat–do not. And their power–as the colonial boycotters of British goods showed in the late 1760s–is truly immense, even revolutionary.

Every vegan understands that her choice to eat plants is the single most powerful way to oppose Big Food. Grumbling over regulatory edicts, rather than promoting the power of an exclusively plant-based diet, is sort of like trying to put out an inferno with a water gun. It’s sad to watch the Food Movement’s leading voices squirt away their ammo on such an important cause.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

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