Stop policing our food already

By Legal Eagle

We were watching TV last night when a report came on about children and food. “Experts” said that children were coming home from school and drinking full cream milk and juice, along with chocolate biscuits and junk. And it had to stop because otherwise children would become obese. Long time readers of the blog will know that I’ve never had much time for the obesity beat up. As far as I’m concerned, moderation in all things is the order of the day. I don’t just feed my kids junk food, but every now and then they’re allowed a sweet biscuit, a square of chocolate, an apple juice or a trip to Maccas. I get really, really sick of people policing my food and my kids’ food all the time.

My personal food eating guideline is quite simple: if it’s a carnivore, I don’t eat it. I used to avoid pork products for many years, but now ham and bacon are one of the few foods my picky daughter eats, so that went out the window. Oh, and I can’t eat tree nuts because I might die if I do (that’s not a food rule, it’s a necessity). I don’t mind what food guidelines other people want to adopt (within reason of course; I might be upset if someone wanted to eat other human beings, or if they wanted to eat highly endangered creatures).

Anyway, I read this interesting article about food labelling in Australia, and how the government is thinking about getting involved in the labelling of food as kosher or halal:

There’s more to keeping kosher than avoiding pork chops.

“Kosher”, is a term that describes the complex web of Jewish dietary laws. Ingredients, how they are cooked, and the correct way to use utensils are all issues that can affect the kosher status of food.

Then there are the disputes. As with almost all areas of the Jewish legal system, there is barely a point of law where a difference of opinion does not exist.

For some reason, the federal government has decided to wade into this mire. The government is currently conducting a review of food labelling in Australia and New Zealand.

Question 17 asks: “Is there a need to establish agreed definitions of terms such as ‘natural’, ‘lite’, ‘organic’, ‘free range’, ‘virgin’ (as regards olive oil), ‘kosher’ or ‘halal’? If so, should these definitions be included or referenced in the Food Standards Code?”

What is kosher (or halal for that matter) doing in this document? How are religious dietary laws commensurate with determining what is organic?

It seems to imply that the act of labelling a product as kosher without first attaining the approval of a central, government-sanctioned authority would be illegal under proposed reforms. Halal foods are in the same position.

The author is Rabbi Gottlieb, who blogs at The Sensible Jew.

From what I know, the religious dietary laws are determined by specific religious bodies associated with the particular religions involved. For example, there is a specific body in Melbourne, Kosher Australia, which certifies products as kosher. So, if you are an Orthodox Jew who wishes to eat kosher foods, you would buy food which has been inspected by Kosher Australia (for example, those delicious Yumi’s dips, mmmm). In Sydney, there is another body, Kashrut Authority.

Different Jews follow different levels of strictness. I think my friends probably cover the entire spectrum, from those who love a BLT with mayonnaise to those who cannot eat non-certified products, have a double kitchen and cannot meat and milk within 4 – 6 hours of one another. There are designated “meat” and “milk” cafes they attend, just to make sure that never the twain meet. I have some friends who sit in the middle ground (won’t eat pig or shellfish, keep kosher-for-passover but otherwise not too fussed). Each of my friends has worked out what rules they choose to follow, and that’s fine.

Believe it or not, I did once ask a friend whether any insects were kosher, and he said that Jews in Yemen say that there is a certain kind of grasshopper or locust which is kosher. Nonetheless, he said he’d still decline to eat a kosher grasshopper. (I think the discussion arose in the context of me telling him how I ate a beetle in Cambodia).

I also have friends who eat halal food. Again, there are specific religiously accredited bodies who certify products as halal, such as Halal Australia. Interestingly, one of my Muslim friends gave me the useful tip that if food is kosher, it’s probably also halal for her purposes, and for many years she used to describe herself as “kosher” because it was more generally well known. Of course, she can eat prawns, which is a definite bonus from my point of view.

Ever heard that proverb, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” I really don’t think that this is something which the government should interfere with. If particular producers of foods were widely misrepresenting food as kosher or halal, or creating a health risk, perhaps there would be a case. But I’ve never heard of such a thing – if you look at the various websites of these accreditation bodies, they tend to be quite rigourous. If specific religions want to set up their own food accreditation bodies and they are happy with that then that’s their business.

It sounds from Rabbi Gottlieb’s account that the government might have stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest in the Jewish community, as one body is claiming to be the only kosher authority, but others such as Rabbi Gottlieb are saying that it’s really up to individual Jews to decide which rules they want to follow, and what level of kosher accreditation is acceptable to them. Given that the rules vary, and that different groups have different rules (eg, Ashkenazi Jews believe that rice is not kosher-for-pesach, Sephardi Jews believe that it is) it seems to me that any claim to represent all Jews is problematic.

Incidentally, I’ve never had a problem with the Beth Din either (the Jewish religious court). If someone chooses to be ruled by it, and as long as it doesn’t conflict with fundamental Australian law, that’s fine by me. The same goes for Sharia law courts to oversee divorces. It’s a bit like accepting an independent arbitrator by consent.

It’s best to just leave religious people to make their own food rules in most cases, unless there’s some real endemic problem or a health risk. I was somewhat horrified by a few of the comments under Rabbi Gottlieb’s article which were hostile towards Jews and towards religion generally. It’s a free country, and people are free to:

  • choose to eat as they wish;
  • wear whatever religious outfit they want (yes, including burqas); and
  • follow whatever religious practices they want.

As long as it doesn’t harm that person or others, or break the law in some way, it’s okay, and governments should leave it be.

Now, if only the powers that be would leave kids alone about drinking full cream milk and eating chocolate biscuits…


  1. Bob Durnan
    Posted June 1, 2010 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Skeptic seems to forget that many children aren’t fortunate enough to have highly educated and effective parents to help them cope with the excesses and unhealthy trends of contemporary capitalism. Just as the development of large cities led to the need for public health laws in relation to hygiene etc, the current situation requires a period of regulation together with public education about the dangers of excessive consumption of certain products. The alternative is the collapse of the health system, stemming from ever-escalating costs.

  2. Posted June 1, 2010 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Like you I’m very cynical about such things.

    Public education campaigns very rarely educate, they just create a new thing to be afraid about. A decade ago, the concern would have been that kids don’t drink enough full cream milk (I remember all those ‘good for growing bones’ ads extolling the virtues of milk and calcium, etc.) Now the concern is apparently that if kids drink milk they’ll become obese. So the problem with public education may be that the people doing the educating keep on contradicting themselves!

  3. Miss Candy
    Posted June 1, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Le, fascinating as always, and evidence again of your extended and multiferous multicultural connections. And you ate a BEETLE!

    Here’s some thoughts for you Bob. Don’t get too excited predicting the health or otherwise of the health system. There’s people far wiser and cleverer than us who are out there doing that. The health system is affected by so many factors good and bad that there are entire industries built on predicting its viability. For example, we’re getting massively healthier and less reliant on hospitals in other ways – through immunisations, allergy management and massive improvements in gerontology. Yet we have obesity and a population that is living much longer.

    I’d also be interested to know what sort of regulation you think might be most effective. LE – removing children for obesity is one simply ridiculous idea that comes up from time to time, suggested by people who don’t know the first thing about it.

    I think some of the most effective regulatory schemes have been to prohibit junk food in schools, prohibit advertising of junk food to kids and to put junk food on high shelves in the supermarket. In Australia, we have the opposite of all three of those elements. The food industry is very powerful and it would take a sustained effort to build any kind of traction to support these restrictions.

    And LE – there are two arguments about family obesity – genetic and cultural. There is clearly a genetic link (exhibit A – my ample shape and the ample shape of my mother and all my uncles and aunties). But there is also room for education and regulation in ensuring that those genes don’t turn into a health disaster (Exhibit B – my gym membership and healthy pantry).

    Public health campaigns should
    a) responsibly allow people to be the shape that they’re designed to be without hating themselves for it,
    b) prevent media and supermarket manipulation of children and the particularly evil “nag effect” marketing strategy,
    c) educate people as to how to eat and cook well for children (and – a clincher – how to effectively say no to their nagging).

  4. Posted June 1, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Sometimes, also, it’s the educated people who make the mistakes.

    For instance: the educated Dr Peter Dingle appeared on Sunrise recently in a segment about the dangers of chemicals in the home. He repeated over and over again that chemicals are dangerous and that we don’t need to have many chemicals in the house. He opened up cupboards and lectured the reporter about all the chemicals in the cupboards.

    Not once did he admit to the fact that almost EVERYTHING is made out of chemicals, as this would, I imagine, have slightly invalidated his argument.

  5. Miss Candy
    Posted June 1, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    And Tim – I think that’s an excellent point! I wish we just had a few simple principles we could stick to.

  6. Posted June 1, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    My mother wasn’t educated past middle school. She did, however, learn an important word for parenting purposes. “No”.

  7. Patrick
    Posted June 1, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Can we have public education on the cost of government?

  8. Posted June 2, 2010 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    Umm, Kosher/Halal food standards only work because customers have faith [no pun intended] in the certifying authority. Given the way the government currently manages our usual food standards and the inspection regime for meats …. umm, how to put this politely?

    Dear Mr Government: WE DON’T TRUST YOU

  9. John H.
    Posted June 2, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    drinking full cream milk

    Reduced fat milk is probably not a good idea. Milk contains conjugated linoleic acid(a fatty acid) which has demonstrated cardioprotective properties. So moderate consumption of full fat dairy is probably better than munching out on the low fat stuff. There are epidemiological studies that point to moderate dairy consumption having a protective value.

    As to the obesity issue, current figures suggest obesity levels may have peaked. There was also a study released recently which claimed that a relatively high BMI of 25 conferred no appreciable health risk in older individuals.

    Understanding the obesity issue from diet and lifestyle issues is insufficient. There is now a good amount of evidence to suggest that BPA, found in every human in our society, can induce obesity and there are linkages with other persistent organic pollutants pointing to a type 2 diabetes risk. Drinking bottled water is a great way to increase the levels of these pollutants in our bodies.

    Then there is the epigenetic findings: the diet of your grandparents can affect your metabolism.

    DeusEx is right about food standards. Companies consistently try to work around these standards. Companies have no obligation to sell healthy food, all they have to do is sell food.

    Dear Mr. CEO: We do not trust you. As it should be, when people are only interested in their welfare we are silly to think they are acting in our best interests.

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