Do People Want More Food Regulation? Or Less?

Over at, Baylen Linnekin reports on the results of a recent poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.  According to Linnekin, the poll shows little public support for food taxes and bans.  Balyen contrasts the recent survey with some previous survey work I’d done which seems to show the opposite.

A vast literature on polling and survey research shows that subtle changes in wording and response categories can result in large shifts in behavior.  Thus, it is useful to compare the two questions side-by-side. In the end, I think you’ll find much more similarity in the two studies than perhaps first meets the eye.

Here is the exact AP-NORC poll question and response categories (it was a telephone poll and you can find the script here):

Do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose the following government policies?FOR EACH FAVOR OR OPPOSE: Is that strongly (favor/oppose) or somewhat (favor/oppose)?
Requiring more physical activity in schools (84%, 89%)
Providing nutritional guidelines and information to people about how to make healthy choices about diet and exercise (83%, 90%)
Funding farmers markets, bike paths and other healthy alternatives (74%, 81%)
Providing incentives to the food industry to produce healthier foods (73%, 80%)
Requiring restaurants to post calorie information on menus (70%, 78%)
Banning advertisements for unhealthy foods aimed at children (44%, 53%)
Placing a tax on the sale of unhealthy foods and drinks (31%, 40%)
Limiting the types or amounts of foods and drinks people can buy (15%, 25%)

As shown above, there were eight issues listed (in random order across respondents).  I’ve listed them in order of support.  I’ve also listed the % favoring in parentheses beside each issue, then a comma and the % favoring plus not opposed (to which I’ve added in the “neither opposed nor unopposed” to the total).

I’d hardly call this set of responses free market or libertarian.  There is ample support for requirements, subsidies, and mandates.  Given the way the question was asked, I could see a respondent perceiving the question to ask something like “rank these interventions from most favored to least favored.”  It would be interesting to know if there were strong order effects.  For example, if “taxes” came first, were they more/less supported than if they came last.  In any event, there is apparently weaker support (and less than majority support) for “fat taxes” and bans on amounts or types of foods people can buy (although, my gut feel is that if you replaced the vague “types or amounts of foods” with something specific like “transfats” or “GMOs” you might get a very different answer)

My study (published in Food Policy) phrased the questions a different way and used an online format.  I asked about preference for government action related to 10 food issues.  None of them match up perfectly with the list of eight above, but I’ll pull out two that are somewhat similar to the above. 

Each question asked:

Which of the following best describes your view on what the U.S. government should do?

Each question had two options that involved more government action, a status-quo option, and two options that involved less government action. 

Here are the results from one question about healthy food with % of respondents falling into each category:

Which of the following best describes your view on what the U.S. government should do?
Ban the use of transfats, saturated fats, and other unhealthy ingredients in food production (15.1%)
Increase regulations to restrict the use of transfats, saturated fats, and other unhealthy ingredients in food production (38.8%)
Maintain current policies on transfats and saturated fats (e.g., mandatory labeling in the supermarket)       (31.6%)
Reduce regulations on transfats and saturated fats    (2.7%)
Make no law regarding transfats, saturated fats, and other unhealthy food ingredients, leaving people to take responsibility for their own diet          (11.8%)

So, 53.9% wanted more regulation on this topic, 31.5% wanted the status-quo and 14.5% wanted less regulation.

Here are the results from another question I asked:

Which of the following best describes your view on what the U.S. government should do?
Create an agency to plan food production and distribution to improve nutritional intake (15.4%)
Use extensive taxes and subsidies to promote healthier foods           (14.2%)          
Maintain current regulations designed to promote healthier foods which include mandatory nutritional labels on foods and establishing suggested dietary intake (53.1%)     
Decrease efforts to promote healthier foods  (5.3%)
Eliminate all food health regulations; allow citizens to make their own food choices (11.9%)        

So, 29.7% wanted more regulation on this topic, 53.1% wanted the status quo, and 17.2% wanted less regulation.

In total, seven of the questions I asked about garnered majority support for government action and the most favorable related to issues that could be perceived as relating to food safety, food affordability, and animal welfare. Three issues did not garner support for more government action.  So, in my study 70% of the issues raised were such that people wanted more government action compared to the status quo or less government action. 

The AP-NORC poll asked about eight issues, and (depending on how you treat the “undecideds”), either 62.5% or 75% garnered majority support for more government action. 

So, yes, we can find a couple questions were we “free market” folks can take a bit of comfort.  However, the overall response patterns in both surveys are much more statist than I am comfortable with.  That’s one reason I decided to write The Food Police (you can also read more on my interpretation of these results here)  I’m hopeful I can bring more folks over to my way of thinking by presenting a perspective that differs from the one normally offered by many food writers.