Supermarket chieftains bemoan the yoke of interference

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Man, these people just don’t get it.

At the FMI mid-winter executive conference, a panel of supermarket mucky-mucks traded pats on the back while complaining that the government’s regulation of their industry is way overdone.

First, alert the media: Big business types think government regulation is onerous. What robber baron, what sweatshop operator, what industrial polluter, what gangster ever thought that government intrusion into his affairs was justified?

No, I’m not saying supermarket executives equate with those lower entrepreneurial forms, but as an analogy, it works. Just because a business thinks government should leave it alone, doesn’t mean it should. The issues are, "Is there a problem?" and "What's the solution?"

In this Supermarket News story, the execs’ two so-righteous-we-can-be-trusted examples address food safety and obesity, and of course, I’ll focus on the latter:

Steve Smith, president and CEO, K-VA-T Food Stores, said the food industry's proactive stances on the obesity issue demonstrates how effectively retailers and suppliers can act on their own. Referring to the Facts Up Front program, he said, 'We didn't wait on government to mandate that for us. It was the right thing to do.'

And again I say, these people just don’t get it.

Mr. Smith can cloak himself in rectitude if he wishes, but IMO, far more businessmen make it appear they are reeling themselves in to avoid regulation than to do the right thing. And I'm not saying many execs wouldn't like to do the right thing. But it's hard to find that line on a balance sheet, and that's what execs had better be beholden to.

Let’s use Smith’s example. Facts Up Front “is a nutrient-based labeling system that summarizes important information from the Nutrition Facts Panel in a simple and easy-to-use format on the front of food and beverage packages,” according to its website.

So, this proof of do-good-ism repeats information already on the package. That’s what you got? Sorry, but lack of information is not the problem. Most people already know that, say, Pop Tarts are not a health food, so printing a bunch of stats on the box front isn’t going to influence most people to buy any fewer of them — and that’s the point! Look like you've accomplished something without affecting sales.

Besides, as long as the scheme is voluntary, we’re not going to see the stats that say “Calories: 1900!” on anyone’s front label.

Meanwhile, as long as we’re talking about labeling — which is what the supermarketers want to talk about — we won’t be talking about the real issue, which is that the vast majority of products in the center aisles are unhealthful and best avoided, period.

Do I think government regulation is a wonderful practice that will solve all our problems? No, I do not. I think it is a last resort when a problem gets out of hand and no other remedy appears possible. With obesity, surely we're there by now.