Trust, trust, trust – and legislation

Corinna Hawkes is the Head of Policy and Public Affairs for WCRF International. She is a specialist in food policy and Honorary Fellow at the Centre for Food Policy, City University, London.

What’s the role of legislation in modern society, a society so big, so global, that even in our own local, lived out lives, it is impossible to have personal relationships with everyone?

Why do we have legislation?

Some years ago I was involved in a report that looked at the issue of food waste. During the process, I came across an interesting fact: the reason why (in the United States at least) legislation was introduced on the “cosmetic” appearance of fruits and vegetables (their size, shape, colour etc.) was to prevent dishonest traders from ripping off their colleagues (they were hiding rubbishy produce in their packing cases). The lesson: legislation happens when trust between people breaks down in a competitive marketplace.

It’s nice to think of a world that needs no legislation. We all know each other, we all trust one another, and nobody ever does anything wrong. We know our neighbour is not trying to sell us rotten tomatoes.

Nice though it is to think of these days that never were, it is important to remember why legislation is here: to regulate a consumer society in which people compete to provide us with products and services. In this kind of marketplace, the incentives to make a buck at all costs are all too evident.

When I lived in the United States, I got involved in various community-based initiatives concerned with providing marketing channels for small, local, and often organic, farmers. At the time, a new law was being negotiated by Congress to define the meaning of “organic.” A good idea, you might think. But some of the farmers I spoke with were dead against it. Not because they wanted to flout the rules, but because their production methods were even more stringent. Moreover, they felt they did not need some kind of law because they had the trust of their buyers. Their consumers knew their faces, trusted them, so no legislation was needed to prove they were doing what they said they were.

Trust is key

A couple of years ago an initiative at Simon Fraser University in Canada identified “trust” as a key leverage point to address obesity. The idea was that high trust societies are able to form wide-reaching and successful cooperative partnerships – of the kind that many believe are necessary to address the obesity epidemic. A bunch of experts and food companies got together to discuss the finding that building authentic trust between the food industry and other sectors would require honest, interactive communication, leadership and collaborative methods. They also identified that legislation is needed in the situations when “competition is undesirable”, even in the presence of other factors that enable trust.

This goes back to a core reason for having legislation in the first place: competition. But as any economist – or government policy wonk – will tell you, competition is part and parcel of the modern marketplace. It is, in other words, desirable. Moreover, most people don’t have the time or inclination to avoid the modern marketplace altogether. In the modern global market, they want to be getting on with their lives and be able to trust that the market is treating them fairly without having to worry too much about it. But how is that trust created in a global marketplace that is a far cry from knowing the face of the farmer? Legislation. If there’s a clear set of rules in place that enables the market – and the food system as a whole – to function for people, everyone wins.

The food industry and legislation

Despite many efforts to engage with the food industry to address obesity – many of them laudable – we are hardly in a good place (yet) with regard to trust between those of us concerned with improving diets at the populations level, and the companies that keep up their bottom line by selling a range of products into a diverse market. While some of our objectives are the same, there are still too many that are not.

Despite arguments to the contrary, legislation could help build that trust. And the last thing the food supply chain wants is for trust to break down – as witnessed by the ongoing horsemeat scandal.

That’s why WCRF International will be discussing what legislation we should be prioritising to address obesity at a workshop on Using The Law Effectively For Cancer Control In Europe, hosted by the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer and the Norwegian Cancer Society in Oslo this week (6 – 7 March 2013).

We will be looking at the range of policies amendable to legislation, from nutrition labelling through to marketing to kids, providing nutrition education in schools to getting the food system into shape.  It is not about demonising anybody or stopping people from doing what they want; nor even preventing companies from making money. It’s about having a marketplace – in this case for food – which we all can trust, without having to think about it.

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