The food industry has been under recent scrutiny as to its moral and ethical obligation to consumers in the provision of healthy, wholesome food to citizens. There has been a widening feeling that in order to impart ethics into the industry, there is a need to tax all unhealthy ingridients, regulate prices especially when cheaper prices come at an expense to the consumer and the need for classification and ethical traceability. Inn response, a group of protagonists in the industry who feel that consumers should be responsible for their own nutritional choices has clamoured for the market autonomy. They feel that utter freedom of choice as to which products should be consumed shoould be granted to the consumer. Therefore, the consumers, through their own intuition, should avoid all foods that are deemed harmful or unethically produced. It is in view of this contoversial debate that this esssay establishes the pros and cons of these arguments based on an ethics platform.
Positions have been adopted that provide a hard-line against consumers freedom of expression in the food industry. On one hand, the Chicago School of Economy postulates for a value free market with well informed and versed consumers in making suitable choices in consumption. On the other hand, there is the position held by lobbyists and campaigners for consumer rights who feel that the consumer should always be protected against harmful or inappropriate products by corporations in the food industry.
The consumer, in the former approach, is hereby viewed as either passive or equipped with insufficient knowledge and power so as to reject any advances that are deemed unethical. This incorporates the fact that the middle income consumer is frequently indebted to the producer, who would otherwise use this to the advantage of lowering standards to produce cheaper products that contravene basic ethics. The latter argument against consumer sovereignty and demands governmental interventions in the food industry proposes that consumers exhibit utilitarian maximization of their own persornal utility such that most people insist on buying cheaper products without giving a damn on whether the producer met the set moral standards. This in turn means that private preferences and interests take root in the protection of politicized issues such as the impact on the environment. Therefore, the voter, who happens to be hypothetically distinctive from the consumer, votes in an unethical government that does not have the public interests and moral principles at heart.
This is however contravened by the empirical evidence presented against these concepts. First, the idea of the market being value free is only hypothetical since societal norms of trust and decency such as adherence to agreed contracts between the consumer and the producer are mainly upheld by the market players. Secondly, although some consumers such as children are highly vulnerable, many consumers have diverse opinions regarding particular products, which is advanced by technological advances such as the internet and widespread awareness campaigns conducted by lobbyists and Non-Governmental Organisations. However, this aspect is flawed since the consumers can never at one time attain perfect knowledge on all the products offered in the market.
Thirdly, studies conducted by consumer-watch non-governmental organisations indicate that consumers are not concentrating solely on their personal and short-term interests and preferences but are shifting towards a sustainable public interest on consumerism issues. Therefore, the image of the rational, utilitarian, egoistic cost-effective consumer is being discarded as a portrayal of consumer behaviour, thought and a theoretical analysis. Fourthly, the distinction between the end user of various products and the general public, who vote for policies on food consumption is rather challenging. Empirically, the individual who shops and consumes the goods produced is one and the same with the voter who casts his vote in support or in opposition to various legislations or governments in the political process. Therefore, preferences expressed in shopping cannot be detached from political preferences. Moreover, from an analytical point of view, the distinction between consumer and citizen is not constructive in the food industry since the existence of consumer concerns expresses a discontentment in the ability of the existing regulatory body in dealing with rogue producers.
In1962, the John F. Kennedy government appealed to the consumerism rights broadly through the enactment of the Bill of Consumers Rights, which was consequently integrated into the European Union consumer policy programme. It addressed the rights to safety, the right to keep the consumer informed, the freedom of choice, the freedom to be heard, right of representation and the right to sufficient legal protection. After the 1992 Rio Convention in which the general significance of sustainable production was deliberated upon by most nations till a consensus was achieved and the later creation of the unified European single market, the ethics in consumerism and diverse consumer needs came to prominence. However, concerns expressed by consumers are multiple and cannot be aptly documented in law.
Consumer’s rights can be ethically justified from an analysis of three different perspectives that lobby for consumer sovereignty. A deontological approach, which strongly advocates for the undeniable sovereignty, can be traced to the German philosopher Kant. Consumption choices are placed in the individual consumer’s autonomy; hence the consumer should mould the market into his or her preferences. This argument serves to nullify the purported conceptual distinction between the voter and the consumer since it clearly states that the autonomy of consumers should be upheld over that of producers. Kant bases this deontological approach on the basis that adults are well-informed and educated on the various products and that they are independently capable of choosing the preferences they feel are suitable for their needs. The market and production systems should further deliver goods and services as preferred by an autonomous individual.
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A utilitarian perspective is proposed by John Stuart Mill’s statement on freedom in which the autonomous person should be capable of striving for his own goals and preferences through creation of awareness by education, regulation, dependable information and receptive markets. However, the utilitarian perspective justifies balancing the overall costs of giving consumers the freedom of choice and that of letting experts in the food industry decide on the constituents of healthy food and nutrition. This contravenes all inherent principles of consumer sovereignty as applied to the food industry.
The third perspective is the pragmatist perspective since it pays attention to the fact that ethical principles apply chiefly to social developments. In a social context, food is produced, prepared and consumed under which any moral contravention would have a direct impact. Without social regulations and rules, the expression of the rights of autonomy would be rendered null and void. Consumer sovereignty under a pragmatist approach can only be in context if the key market players such as producers, government regulators, policy makers and the civil society adhere to this perspective. As a consequence of food serving as a basis for cultural and social functions, collectives in the sphere of lobbyists and sensitizers, such as cultural or quasi-political non-governmental organizations and independent consumer organisations should shape consumer preferences while ensuring that autonomy is guaranteed. This implies that purely economic competition availed by the producer’s purchasing power on food conumption markets should not be the chief focal point in considering whether certain products such as genetically modified food are detrimental or not.
In the food industry, the clamour for maximum profits or the most economical utilisation of money does not directly equate to the best situation since various resultant costs such as on the environment and animal welfare emerge. In this industry, not every product can be allowed to be freely circulated and hence control on the market’s sovereignty should be practiced. The food industry, therefore, has a moral responsibility to provide healthy, wholesome food to citizens and consumers should not be wholly responsible for their own nutritional choices.