The Absurdity of Some Government Intervention

Companies that cave to political pressure might find themselves reversing course when they start listening to consumers:

As you may have heard, McDonald’s announced Tuesday that it’s revamping its Happy Meals to include apples or other fruit as standard instead of an option, make milk the beverage unless a customer asks for soda and reduce the size of the fries portion from 2.4 ounces to 1.1 ounces. All told, the changes are expected to cut the calorie count of a Happy Meal by about 20%. Moreover, the fast-food giant will tinker with its grown-up menu as well, with the aim of cutting (for example) salt content by more than 15% by 2015.

The company denied that political pressure, such as San Francisco’s ban on existing Happy Meals, was a major factor. But a lot of for-your-own-good “food policy” types are keen to take credit.

They aren’t so keen to associate themselves with the week’s other big food announcement: Faced with a consumer revolt, Campbell’s is putting salt back in its 31 Select Harvest soups “in an effort to improve the way they taste,” as the L.A. Times reported. Investors applauded, with the company’s stock price ticking up 1.3%.

Now in a sense, both these stories illustrate a basic process of capitalism at work: Businesses are always experimenting with their offerings in hopes of staying current with consumer trends. And interest in healthier and lower-calorie food options, especially for kids, is definitely one of those trends.

At the same time, successful companies tend to give customers what they actually do like rather than what they know they’re supposed to like – a lesson Campbell’s learned the hard way.

If anyone’s feeling an uneasy soup-stain-on-shirt-front sense of embarrassment, it should be Mayor Bloomberg’s Health Department. That department has gone on a huge public campaign to encourage odium for sodium, with processed soup a designated villain, as with a notorious public-service ad showing salt crystals spraying out of a can of the product. Doesn’t seem to be working, now, does it?

In fact, the science on salt and health has long been more complicated than you might think. Per Scientific American, “In just the past few months researchers have published seemingly contradictory studies showing that excess sodium in the diet leads to heart attacks, reduces your blood pressure or has no effect at all.” This month, the venerable science monthly ran an article by Melinda Wenner Moyer under the startling headline, “It’s Time to End the War on Salt.” City health commissioner Thomas Farley must have needed reviving with smelling salts, assuming his office hasn’t tried to ban those yet.

Continue Reading Walter Olson’s op-ed at the New York Daily News.

Do you think companies will take notice of these examples and start to listen to consumers instead of the government food police? Share your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter.

UPDATE: Cheesecake Factory launches a new ‘SkinnyLicious’ menu (http://ow.ly/5T3uS). So we want to know from you, is it because of consumer demand or political pressure? Take our poll: http://ow.ly/5T3Aa.