Thursday, 2 May 2013

The trouble with fraud

Libertarian philosophy is often summed up by the non-aggression principle: people should be free to do as they please, so long as they don't initiate force or fraud against others.

Unless you're a philosopher, the 'force' bit is easy enough to understand.

The 'fraud' aspect has always struck me as more problematic. Human language is inevitably vague, and the semantics change through space and time. There is a spectrum of deception, from deliberate outright lies, through subtle mistruth, to the omission of salient truths and even accidental (but avoidable) confusion. What background knowledge is assumed? When things are unclear, whose responsibility is it to seek clarification?

Advertising provides some good examples, food labels in particular.

Consider this "ice cream":

Not just any ice cream, this is "Simply 100% dairy ice cream with real Cornish cream".

But what does that actually mean?

The ingredients sound rather less delicious:

Reconstituted skimmed milk, water, sugar, glucose-fructose syrup, Cornish cream (6%), whey solids, glucose syrup, butteroil, emulsifier (mono and di-glycerides of fatty acids), vanilla extract, stabilisers (locust bean gum, guar gum, carrageenan), colour (mixed carotenes), flavouring.
At what point in our history did butteroil, locust bean gum, and glycerides of fatty acids become acceptable ingredients for ice cream?  If this counts as "100% dairy ice cream", what adulterations would require a softening of the claim to 99% or 50% "dairy ice cream".  Is there such a thing as 'non-dairy' ice cream? Which other countries would consider this "ice cream".

There are countless other examples.

Some M&S roast chicken slices I bought at the motorway services contained potato starch - useful for preserving the product, perhaps, but not something you'd naturally expect to find in roast chicken.   Maybe these days it's accepted that packaged food will contain some additives, and at least the potato starch was there for me to see in the ingredients list.

Often the deception is more subtle.  Consider the case of Canthaxanthin:
Canthaxanthin is widely applied as a feed additive delivering red pigmentation. In poultry pigmentation, canthaxanthin is used to impart a red color to egg yolks and to broiler skin. Used in conjunction with yellow pigments, canthaxanthin increases yolk color intensity to meet market demands for golden-orange yolks. In the pigmentation of salmonid fish, canthaxanthin is supplied inn the feed in order to impart a desirable coloration to flesh.
That's according to BASF ("The Chemical Company").

Is it simple fashion that drives "market demands for golden-orange yolks"?  Do consumers want this colour for its own sake, or because it has traditionally been suggestive of a well-nourished chicken and a nutrient rich egg?  Is the preference for "desirable coloration" of salmon flesh likewise fickle? Or might the "pallid pinkish grey" of uncoloured farmed salmon be suggestive of a less-than-lovely product.

I honestly don't know where the lines should be drawn, and I don't know the proper role for government here.  Most people will be familiar with the great UK-EU chocolate debate, which apparently goes back to 1973.  A BBC News article from 2000 suggests it was resolved when
European MPs ... voted to allow chocolate made with up to 5% vegetable fats or up to 20% milk content to be sold in all 15 member states.
Personally, I'm with the continentals on this one: what passes for chocolate in Britain (and worse still, in America) is not real chocolate.  But who controls the definition?  And when boundaries are clear, aren't they are largely arbitrary? (much as I respect the Reinheitsgebot)

I'd like to leave food labelling entirely to the free market.  I don't think labels for salt, calorie, and fat content should be compulsory (though I'd want to know if my food was laced with arsenic or heroin).  I have nothing but disdain for religious imperatives regarding the slaughter of animals, but I don't think halal labelling should be compulsory.  It is reasonable to expect those who care to do their own research, to spread the word, and to exert market pressure on retailers for voluntary labelling.

But what of the bizarre practices that no normal consumer would suspect, like feeding ground-up animal matter to cows?  Is a tomato with fish genes still a tomato?

Would a libertarian society allow Elmea to be passed off as cream? How far would caveat emptor extend? Would all English words become vacuous, defined by the user, so that Tesco 'cream', Sainsbury's 'cream', and Waitrose 'cream' could be radically different substances?  Would it be left to juries to decide, with inevitable inconsistency, that 'cream' made from cow cells in a lab is ok, but 'cream' made from vegetable fat is not?

I can't be the first to have wondered this. Recommendations for further reading would be most welcome.

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