Well, yes, of course I agree with this line of thinking

Most, of course, are simply trying to protect consumers. But is that strictly necessary? Have we really taken leave of our senses? We are all perfectly capable of using the equipment we possess, along with common sense, to take responsibility for ourselves. Both sniffing and examining fresh ingredients is a perfectly reliable way to tell if it something has deteriorated too far. The olfactory memory is an excellent device and can instantly summon the scent of fresh chicken to compare with one that smells a bit iffy. We are alerted by a stench, attracted by a ripe odour and seduced by fragrant aroma. Smell, discolouration and shape tell us much.

It\’s just that this line of thinking seems to contrary to the current zeitgeist. Which is of course that manufacturers of any and everything have to be rigidly controlled by bureaucratic laws or they will poison us all in our beds.

Vide my favourite EU law, the jams, jellies, marmalades and sweet chestnut purees one, which lays down the allowable composition of compotes for 500 million people. Including the delightful assertion that carrots are fruit.

The problem is here that we human beings are really rather good at playing repeat games. We see this all the time in that new field of behavioural economics: we\’ll punish people, at our own cost, if they make what we consider an unfair division of the spoils. When we\’ve an activity, an interaction, which is repeated multiple times these social methods of controlling the propensity of others to cheat work very well: they\’re baked into us as a species. It\’s what explains why brands work, they\’re a signal of continued trustworthiness. It\’s trivially easy for such a brand to be destroyed if and as when the collective experience turns against it (see Ratner, G.) and it is thus something which is rigorously protected by not allowing quality to fall and thus damage said brand.

We human beings are also not so good at playing not repeat games. The once off purchases in life, the ones where the payoff comes many years into hte future, these we\’re not so good at. A pension for example. Which is of course why those who would sell us such products work so damn hard to have an image, a brand, of probity and reliability.

But all of this added together tells us that the rational form of consumer protection is to have a sliding scale of it. From, at the routine end of life, not very much at all in a regulatory sense: let humans be humans there. Allow exactly that human behaviour, experience, at repeat games, to do the product sorting. At the other end, with those once off decisions that we\’re more likely to get wrong, pensions, wills, probate, more regulation is just fine.

One of the things wrong with the modern world is that to an extent we do this exactly the wrong way around. We have rigid bureaucratic rules governing those day to day products like jam and leave the really big decisions to professional reputations. You know, if someone screws up probate, by definition a once in a lifetime event, it\’s the Law Society that you complain to about their not following professional standards…..

 

 

29 comments on “Well, yes, of course I agree with this line of thinking

  1. Which is of course that manufacturers of any and everything have to be rigidly controlled by bureaucratic laws or they will poison us all in our beds

    Because some would. They would adulterate food for higher profits if it weren’t against the law to do so. And where it isn’t against the law, for example, very high levels of salt and sugar in processed food, they do effectively poison us.

  2. And where it isn’t against the law, for example, very high levels of salt and sugar in processed food, they do effectively poison us.

    You’re a braver man than I to make that assertion here.

  3. Stephen is completely and obviously wrong, or being deeply ironic.

    I have to say the jam thing doesn’t trouble me that much. It makes some sense to have a single, common definition of all sorts of things. It doesn’t stop you selling things like your (sugared courgette pickle), it just means you can’t put “jam” on the label. You also can’t put more than 5% of water in bacon without declaring it as such. So this is more about making sure consumers know what they are getting. In the case of jam, that it does actually contain some real fruit, rather than just being an insipid mixture of pasteurised pressed juice concentrate, sugar, and gelatine.

    Even more of it might help the various scams passed off on ultra price-conscious German shoppers. For example. a lot of what is here passed off as “smoked salmon” is not smoked and not salmon.

  4. Stephen – “Because some would. They would adulterate food for higher profits if it weren’t against the law to do so. And where it isn’t against the law, for example, very high levels of salt and sugar in processed food, they do effectively poison us.”

    We have laws against murdering people already. Why do we need special ones for food?

    There is zero evidence that very high levels of either salt or sugar in processed food is even remotely bad for us. Indeed there has just been a large scale study showing there was never any evidence that high levels of salt were bad for us. The Puritanical tools who make up these policies thought it would be good for us even though they had no evidence it was.

  5. “You’re a braver man than I to make that assertion here.”

    I would gladly drink the tears of Stephen after the whipping he’s got here for that comment.

    But I won’t, as they are far too salty….

  6. Stephen, above, has the right way of it. Not in the assertion that manufacturers would prefer to adulterate food, at least in the sense of putting in things that aren’t supposed to be there. Rather, it is in the quite correct assumption that these laws are there to impose dietary hegemony upon us.

    For instance, here in Britain a Food Standards Agency was imposed to supposedly protect us from adulterated food. But its purpose was and is to modify the national diet, “protecting” us from all the types of dietary components that the puritan-romantics detest. Things that add taste such as fats, sugars, salt and so on.

    In other words, rather than ensuring we get the food we want, they are there to ensure that we do not get the food we want, but rather the food that our moral superiors think we ought to have. They know that we are all too morally depraved to choose it for ourselves. Thus, State force.

  7. JamesV-

    I have to say the jam thing doesn’t trouble me that much. It makes some sense to have a single, common definition of all sorts of things.

    Should the State own the language? Doesn’t that belong to all of us? Words have frequently drifted over time; somebody ordering mincemeat a few hundred years ago would have expected some, er, minced meat with added spices and fruit, now they’d expect a fruity mulch and be horrified if it had meat in it.

    Do we really need protection from manufacturers choosing what words to use? If they mislabel a product, people who want it won’t buy it, and people who don’t want it will buy it, and that’s not a good way to get repeat custom. Somehow, people were managing to both sell and buy sausages before the EU gave us a precise definition of what the word “sausage” means.

  8. Before sell by dates we did have the experience and common sense to tell when food was bad. It would be informative to know the original reasons for sell by dates back in the day.

    Today, we have lost a lot of that common sense and removal of sell by dates would just create a lot of food poisoning cases.

    I know a few people that dont even known when a sausage is off and will happy continue eating said sausage when it tastes “different”, whereas I’ll spit it out and say its off. I’ve even known someone to scoff down a cake that was off (and moldy) and when questioned about the “earthy” taste, responded with “what earthy taste” (they were sober at the time).

    I’ve got this deep down feeling that the current discussions about sell by dates have originated from the eco-dogooder-twats. All that co2 boo, all the ch4 boo, think of the poor starving children in Africa.

    And if sell by dates are removed, who becomes liable for the resulting food poisoning cases? If the courts find shops are liable then they will just implement their own voluntary sell by dates, rather than being forced into it. Or the supermarkets will just continue with sell by dates in the fear of litigation/bad press.

    Manufacturers and retailers will still use sell by dates to maintain their brand image. Does McVities want someone to eat a 4 yr old digestive that tastes rank, creating a very negative customer experience? No. Sell by dates, today, are as important to brand image as they are for government mandated food safety.

    Isnt the real issue people buying 2 weeks worth of food on their weekly shop, and therefore throwing away a weeks worth of food, to make room for the next weekly shop of 2 weeks with of food?

    How exactly will scraping sell by dates fix that problem? Genetically we are programmed to hoard food for the inevitable times of shortage. Supermarkets use advanced psychology and behavioral analysis aimed at our primeval need to hoard food. Or in other words “How the world has always worked 101″.

    To stop this behavior you need to either genetically engineer humans to remove the hoarding gene, or ban all forms of marketing.

  9. @IanB.

    I do take your point, but I suspect the regulations largely follow language. Even as it changes over time (though the law is de facto always behind the curve). This of course creates its own issues in trying to harmonise for 20+ languages. I don’t know the details of how that is got around, since EU law is supposed to be published in all the official languages and hold equal force in all. EU translators (I was a translator for several years, sadly not with a lucrative EU position) have some tools such as EUDRALECT for this kind of terminology, but it cannot possibly have perfect implementation.

    I digress.

    You can’t give producers free rein to label their own products. Labelling jam as “malt whisky” would fall foul of all sorts of fraud and misrepresentation statutes before you get to any kind of technical definition (incidentally the legal definition of malt whisky follows at least 100 years of industry practice – rather than the industry having to adjust to the law). It provides some kind of consumer protection against unscrupulous tactics, like making a high quality fruit jam and gaining market share, then progressively cheapening the recipe without changing the label, in undetectable increments until the thing has nothing but sterilised fruit juice in place of fruit. Law then at least provides a barrier you can’t go below. Take a trip to Lidl, and you will see all manner of labelling devices (such as Honig-Erzeugnis (honey product), Oragnengetraenk (orange drink) to still provide a product without falling foul of labelling requirements.

    I’m sure this deserves more careful application than it gets, but ultimately it is about a balancing of freedoms. You aren’t free to mislead people into paying good money for a cheap product because in doing so you limit their freedoms. And no less than Tim has pointed out that consumer interests are supreme over producer interests.

  10. Labelling jam as “malt whisky” would fall foul of all sorts of fraud and misrepresentation statutes before you get to any kind of technical definition

    It would also be rather self-defeating, for reasons I gave above.

    It provides some kind of consumer protection against unscrupulous tactics, like making a high quality fruit jam and gaining market share, then progressively cheapening the recipe without changing the label, in undetectable increments until the thing has nothing but sterilised fruit juice in place of fruit.

    If they can do that without the customers noticing any difference, one wonders what precisely you’re protecting the customers from. If the sterilisied fruit is as good as the “high quality” fruit, there does not appear to be a differnece.

    If, on the other hand, they are claiming something specific about the fruit, e.g. it is organic (which is meaningless woo, but many customers want “organic” regardless) then if they use non-organic fruit they are committing fraud anyway. You still don’t need the State to define what “jam” is.

  11. @alan, sell by dates might be removed, but use by dates will remain. They are the more important date. With three potential dates (Sell by, Best Before, and Use by) appearing on labels no wonder it’s confusing. The use by date is the one after which food posioning could occur.

    As for use by I would remove the offence of selling products past that date from the statute book and allow it to be sold to those who acknowledge that there could a risk. Food doesn’t instantly go off on the use by date (which is conservative in the first place). Yes, some people are stupid, but the vast majority of the population are not.

  12. Personally as a consumer I think use by and best before dates are pretty useful, especially on those products you can’t tell the state of without opening the packaging (and thus forcing you to use them once you have) e.g. a tinned soup. I imagine that such labelling would remain in the absence of State requirements anyway, in most cases.

  13. @IanB,

    I am not sure I could defend the selling of “not jam” as “jam”. There is no law against you selling the product, you just can’t call it (in competition with other producer interests) what it isn’t.

    Would you extend this to, for example, non medically-trained people being allowed to market their services as doctors? Caveat emptor after all.

    What you call a product is a claim about the qualities of said product. Having some law, any law, is at least a labour-saving device. For if I really want jam, I can just buy it and ignore the rows of cheaper “sterilised sweet fruit preserve product” it is competing for my attention with.

  14. James, why are you assuming that there is a problem with the selling of not-jam as jam? It’s like, my comics. They’re adult science fiction. I want to tell my customers that so they know what they’re getting. What is the use to me of selling them as “family friendly westerns” or “gay comedy”? Why would I do that?

    But what it seems to me you’re doing is part of the food faddist problem; the personal definition of what is “high quality” and what isn’t. In what way is “sterilised sweet fruit preserve product” not jam exactly, other than in a “I think fresh organic fruit pieces are superior to sterilised ones” way? Is this not just a general romantic dislike of “processed” food in favour of the woo of the “natural”?

    That sterilised sweet fruit product, it’s actually just cheap jam, isn’t it?

  15. Once stuff is in jars, bottles or tight plastic packaging, it can be difficult to tell whether it is “off”. But you can always tell, in my experience, how bendy a cucumber or banana is, and the twats have (or had) laws on that.

  16. @IanB, Personally as a consumer I think use by is the most important date. Best before dates only indicate when a product is at it’s best but it’s still usable, most likely doesn’t taste any different to brand new stuff. Mostly used on tinned products which can be usable for years (maybe decades) but best before a few months.

    Sell by dates are only useful to supermarkets. If they changed the date into a code then they can carry on doing the stock control by decoding it.

  17. I actually like the “best before” because I want to eat stuff when it tastes nice, not just when it isn’t toxically degraded, but that’s my personal preference.

  18. James V: You aren’t free to mislead people into paying good money for a cheap product because in doing so you limit their freedoms.

    Unusual definition of freedom there. As an assertion, it’s false. I recently went to see The Troll Hunter, which apparently was made with a budget of $2 million, for the same ticket price I’d've paid to see a Hollywood blockbuster that cost $100 million to make. I don’t feel that this limited my freedom.

    And of course, plenty of people are deeply enthusiastic to pay good money for a product just because it has a brand name on it.

    Then there’s the question of how many religions are leading their followers into paying good money for a cheap product.
    Quite frankly, I think let people decide for themselves whether the product is worth whatever price is charged.

  19. I would gladly drink the tears of Stephen after the whipping he’s got here for that comment

    Like I give a damn what some libertory halfwit says or thinks. Prize comment, “There is zero evidence that very high levels of either salt or sugar in processed food is even remotely bad for us”. Yeah, right. Except for all the evidence that it is.

  20. Stephen, above, has the right way of it. Not in the assertion that manufacturers would prefer to adulterate food, at least in the sense of putting in things that aren’t supposed to be there. Rather, it is in the quite correct assumption that these laws are there to impose dietary hegemony upon us

    If they are designed for the purpose they are making a pisspoor job of it, as the country gets fatter and more unhealthy by the year.

    Do we really need protection from manufacturers choosing what words to use? If they mislabel a product, people who want it won’t buy it, and people who don’t want it will buy it, and that’s not a good way to get repeat custom

    Well it depends, doesn’t it. If it says ‘delicious fruit salad’ and it’s a bland disgusting fruit salad then we don’t need any law to protect us from that. However if the label fails to communicate the levels of salt or sugar accurately or fails to list ingredients completely so that a customer has an entirely avoidable allegeric reaction, then we do need laws ro protect us.

  21. If they are designed for the purpose they are making a pisspoor job of it, as the country gets fatter and more unhealthy by the year.

    Ah, it’s so easy to get a Proggie to reveal the evangelical snobbery that burns in their shrivelled little heart, isn’t it? Haha.

  22. Stephen, above, has the right way of it. Not in the assertion that manufacturers would prefer to adulterate food, at least in the sense of putting in things that aren’t supposed to be there. Rather, it is in the quite correct assumption that these laws are there to impose dietary hegemony upon us.

    Well, that and the fact that people have been harmed and ripped off by food and drink producers and sellers.

  23. I want the sell by date stamping to continue for fresh produce. Most of the meat, fish, eggs, dairy and poultry sold in supermarkets is packed so you can’t apply the sniff test.
    The supermarkets now usually check their fresh produce, and set aside items that are close to their sell by date. Such items tend to be heavily discounted, and still safe to buy and cook. But most importantly, the presence of that date stamp imposes a good discipline on the retailer, never to allow stuff that is dangerously out of date to stay on the shelves.
    So for a lot of produce, especially the fresh unprocessed healthy food we are all supposed to be eating more of, date stamping is beneficial to the consumer.

  24. A politician, an honest one, is notified of a problem of which he is ignorant. Maybe he’s alerted by a voter, maybe by the press. So he asks advice. He doesn’t ask granny about jam making- he asks a well known, reputable jam manufacturer (or similarly for canned goods, drinks, whatever). Said manufacturer proudly tells the politician of all the precautions his firm takes (whether or not the production people actually adhere to them, and regardless of whether they are necessary) and the politician goes away and enacts regulations such that all jam must be made thus. As a by product of this interchange many unnecessary regulations are passed, it is far harder for new companies to get into jam making, and the consumer pays for it all. The politician is lauded as having saved us all from poisening.
    There is thus a conspiracy against the public between politicians and established businesses- even if (which might not always be true) both parties are acting out of the best motives.
    Of course, if the resultant regulations were a net disbenefit to either party- as closer regulation on once in a lifetime decisions might be- then the producer has a strong motive to modify his advice, and the politician is persuaded away from extra regulation.

  25. Ah, it’s so easy to get a Proggie to reveal the evangelical snobbery that burns in their shrivelled little heart, isn’t it? Haha

    Your paranoid friend James seems to think it is an evil plot to make him eat healthily. I simply pointed out that the statistics were not with him.

    As it happens Ian I have no desireswhatsoever for you and James to eat healthier. I encourage to over eat and to over drink. to eat too much salt and sugar and to test out ‘So Much for Sublety’ thesis that such things are harmless. If you don’t smoke, please start. Go for it. The world will be a better when you’ve left it and anything you can do to accelerate your departure is a-ok by me.

  26. As I said

    I said that I think you should be free to eat, drink and smoke yourself to extinction. What could be more libertarian that that?

  27. You have my sympathy, Stephen

    And you have mine for the paranoia that makes you think that the nasty wasty lefties and ‘big government’ are trying to stop you from eating unhealthily.

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