Tuesday, January 17, 2006

What's A Food?

It's Legislature Time in Utah again, and one of the hot-button issues of 2006 is the proposed repeal of the sales tax on food, HB 109. There are lots of arguments for it, mostly appealing to people's sense of fairness, because everybody eats food. All sorts of church leaders are in support of it.

Fine. My problem with it is this: define "food".

There are some things that clearly should be considered "food:" flour, chicken, potatoes, noodles. There are some things that clearly should not be considered "food:" plastic dishes, paper, furniture. But what about things like the following:
  • pre-cooked chickens
  • bakery cakes and doughnuts (from a local in-store bakery)
  • pre-packaged national-brand cakes and doughnuts
  • herbal supplements
  • prescription drugs
  • toothpaste
  • gum
  • candy
  • Hamburger Helper and other boxed dinner kits
You could make a much longer list, of course. Some of the items on that list are clearly edible, but they are not what you might call "staple foods;" they're more like "luxury foods" and a good portion of their price is not the food itself, but the convenience of having somebody else cook it for you, either wholly (as with the cake) or partially (as with the Hamburger Helper). On the other hand, saying that you can only consider an item "food" if you're not paying for value-added convienience, if taken to its logical extreme, would make cows untaxable but milk and beef taxable. Other items on that list are put in the mouth, but not swallowed. Toothpaste is not considered dietary and doesn't require a federal Nutritional Facts statement, but gum does. And how about herbal supplements and prescription drugs? For FDA purposes supplements are considered a food, and they have a Nutritional Facts statement, but prescription drugs are not and don't. Are either of those foods? are they luxury items that aren't essential for living? are they medicines?

Unless you can come up with some sort of firm guideline (other than somebody's arbitrary decision) as to what a food is, this sort of thing is a nightmare to implement. So sure, repeal the sales tax on food... just as soon as you can tell me what a "food" is.