Is government too intrusive?

As the threat of another partial government shutdown appears, I have two questions:

  1. Would you drink the same milk as a sow provides a newborn piglet?
  2. Would you kiss a hedgehog?

Few industries indulge in hyperbole quite as much as the food and nutrition supplement industry. Chain stores, health clubs and websites push sometimes expensive tubs of stuff carrying all sorts of claims.

Take this gem:

“The proline-rich polypeptides (PRPs) in colostrum enhance the body’s defense against oxidative stress, reducing the inflammatory processes that precede Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have shown PRPs improve the cognitive functioning of patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting that bovine colostrum may have a role in preventing the progression of Alzheimer’s.”

Translation: Drinking milk from a postpartum sow will keep your brain young.

This sounds like hogwash and it probably is, yet this claim is found on the website of one of a dozen supplement sellers that received a joint warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission. The letters warn the companies on two basic counts. One, they’re masquerading their products as new drugs subject to federal law. Two, they’ve mis-branded the products, which are potentially illegal for interstate commerce.

How much of life should government govern? The debate is as old as the days of King George III. The right answer is somewhere between providing an army for the common defense and telling people whether to hold their forks upside down when eating, as George might have, though he also suffered from mental illness.

Food has always been contentious when it comes to government intervention. Yes we had a much ridiculed food pyramid, later changed to MyPlate, but the Agriculture Department has no rule, nor is there a law that people must eat broccoli.

One legitimate function of government is ensuring commercial entities deliver what they say they are. Occasionally labeling rules get into the absurd, like writing “0 calories” on a bottle of water. But in other cases commercial claims can mislead or harm, claims such as those found on the supplement websites.

About my other question, would you kiss a hedgehog? Neither would I. We once pet-sat a hedgehog for a week.  At once adorable and repulsive, “Spike” didn’t strike me as something I would want to kiss.

Nevertheless the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning people specifically not to kiss hedgehogs. Eleven people have been sickened from a salmonella strain associated with the animals which have gained popularity as household pets. The danger is small compared to the potential measles disaster the CDC and other agencies are watching.

Public health is not perfect in the United States but it’s pretty darn good compared to most of the world, and compared to what things have been like throughout human history.

Public health is analogous to the food supply. Bad things occasionally happen. People complain about a misshapen or moldy cherry in a batch they bought. But they don’t stop and think about the miracle of agriculture science, logistics and economics that brings to stores all year around items that were seasonal luxuries for our grandparents. Likewise, few stop and ponder our relative freedom from scourges like chickenpox, food poisoning, and animal-borne diseases.

One reason is a robust scientific and industrial complex devoted to such things. Another is we have a CDC that both fosters research and brokers information. Its concerns range from the really dangerous to the relatively trivial, like hedgehog-borne disease.

No government is perfect. When you’ve got a decent one, though, it’s important to treat it carefully. We the people need to keep it transparent, accountable and true to the Constitution. But we’ve also got to keep it open.

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