Egg Recall Hatches More Regulations

More FDA regulations don't always mean greater food safety.

“Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel famously declared back in the salad days of the Obama administration. The head of the Food Drug Administration (FDA), Margaret Hamburg, is paying heed to Emanuel’s maxim, using the recall of a half billion eggs to argue for giving her agency more power over food. The agency has traced the recent uptick in salmonella infections to eggs. Citing this recall, Hamburg is urging the U.S. Senate to pass the Food Safety Enhancement Act, which the House of Representatives passed last summer. 

So is the egg recall a “serious crisis”? Well, the unfortunate citizens immiserated by diarrhea and nausea from eating contaminated eggs will have obvious reasons to think so. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s foodborne illness surveillance system finds since 1998 that rates of infection in 2009 were lower for Shigella (55 percent decrease), Yersinia (53 percent decrease), STEC O157 (41 percent decrease), Campylobacter (30 percent decrease), Listeria (26 percent decrease), and Salmonella (10 percent decrease); rates were higher for Vibrio (85 percent increase).

So why all the hullabaloo about food safety at a time when our food is less likely than ever to make us sick? The decline in foodborne illnesses was taking place even as media reports on food safety grew from about 22,000 reports in 1998 to over 60,000 last year. It’s not at all surprising that this increase in news coverage, spotlighting foodborne illness in spinach, tomatoes, peanuts, and deli meats, has fueled consumer anxiety over food safety.

While the incidence of foodborne illness appears to be decreasing, might further government regulation speed up that decline and so protect public health? There are reasons to doubt it.

The Food Safety Enhancement Act would dramatically increase the FDA’s role in regulating food production in the United States. The legislation would require some 378,000 food preparation facilities to pay an annual $500 fee to register with the FDA, to keep voluminous records about their safety systems, and be subject to FDA-approved inspections every year or two.

In addition, the act authorizes the Health and Human Services Department to establish an elaborate tracing system that enables the agency to identify each person who grows, produces, manufactures, processes, packs, transports, holds, or sells food in as short a timeframe as practicable but no longer than two business days. Only farmers who sell directly to consumers, fishing vessels, and grain producers would be exempt from the full traceability requirements. The new law would increase the criminal (up to 10 years in prison) and civil penalties ($7.5 million) for violating the new regulations.

The new law would enable the FDA to more widely impose hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) regulations on food producers and processors. HACCP plans attempt to ensure food safety by elaborate monitoring and verification procedures, all copiously documented. The Washington, D.C.-based free-market think tank the Mercatus Institute notes that HACCP regulations were imposed on the seafood industry by the FDA in the mid-1990s. The goal was to reduce the incidence of the saltwater pathogen Vibrio in seafood, yet the CDC FoodNet finds that Vibrio is the only pathogen whose rate of infection has increased since 1998 (admittedly there were only 160 reported cases in 2009).

A 2009 analysis in the Review of Agricultural Economics by U.S. Department of Agriculture economist Michael Ollinger and Washington State University economist Danna Moore finds that costly HACCP regulations end up favoring larger food producers and processors. This is not surprising since only big companies have the resources to cope with the growing burden of federal regulations.

The Washington Post noted that just 192 large egg companies own about 95 percent of laying hens in the U.S., down from 2,500 companies in 1987. To the extent that the public and policymakers are concerned about industry concentration, the costs of meeting the new regulations will only exacerbate this trend toward centralizing food production and processing into the hands of fewer and bigger corporations.

While people decry big food companies and factory farming, the fact is that food safety has dramatically improved since the days of mom-and-pop butcher shops and millions of small family farms, e.g., deaths from foodborne illness have dropped more than 100-fold from 1900 to today. The act specifically exempts farmers who sell directly to consumers from the new requirements, but many small and organic farmers nevetheless oppose the legislation. They fear that the new regulations will inevitably expand to include them.

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis estimates that the new regulations would cost the government $2 billion to implement by 2014. As for the costs to the private sector, the analysis laconically reports, "CBO cannot estimate the cost to private entities of those provisions." However, Ollinger and Moore argue that HACCP regulations cost a lot more than at least one viable alternative—setting specified performance standards and then letting companies figure out the most cost-effective way of meeting them. The two economists calculate that the paper pushing standards advocated by the FDA cost between 160 to 500 percent more than performance standards would. One cheaper food safety performance standard might be applying faster and improved tests for the presence of disease organisms in more samples of food.

Private companies have been quick to develop their own food safety programs. And they have a big incentive for doing so: They lose a lot of money when their brands and industries are caught up in a food safety problem. So companies like Walmart and McDonald's are already contracting with suppliers to meet higher standards than the government mandates. For example, both Wal-Mart and McDonald's are members of GLOBALG.A.P., a private sector organization that sets voluntary standards for the certification of agricultural products around the globe. American and Canadian produce growers are in the process of implementing their produce traceability initiative that will follow lettuce, tomatoes, and spinach from field to salad bar. Even Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director of the hypercautious and self-described “food police” Center for Science in the Public Interest praised McDonald's in USA Today as being “the top of the top” in food safety.

We can expect that as the media and consumers focus more attention on food safety, that food producers and processors will respond to market demands with increasing alacrity and effectiveness. The new regulations sought by the FDA will only slow down that process while offering the illusion of increased safety.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

Disclosure: I grew up on a small dairy farm in Appalachia where I drank raw milk, ate eggs from our chickens, vegetables from our garden, and meat that we slaughtered and butchered ourselves, all without FDA inspection and oversight. My health was not noticeably impaired.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Rahm Emanuel||

    My health was not noticeably impaired.

    Physical health, perhaps. You write retarded ideologically-challenged articles like this, though.

  • ||

    I bought a dozen eggs just this morning. There were no signs of insurrection in the dairy case, although one pink carton was suspiciously askew. I chose the one next to it. Better safe than sorry.

  • waffles||

    another exciting tale of mere existence

  • ||

    Coming tomorrow: How I cooked those eggs and didn't get sick.

  • ||

    All of the agencies and all of the regulations and we still rely on the self serving efforts of producers to ensure our food is safe.

    Nobody want to pay for a recall, nobody wnats to get sued. Yeah, some lame producers will cut corners until it bites them in the ass. That is reality with or without inspectors. The FDA and whatever your state, city and county counterparts are called don't have shit to do with America's laudable food safety record. Self interest of business owners has a whole helluva lot to do with it.

    But we in the choir already know that.

  • ||

    J sub D: You preach it, brother! :-)

  • -||

    See also the always relevant (because it deals with universal truths) Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

  • Pope Jimbo||

    Don't knock those lame producers. I remember back when I was young and broke all the time, there was a local grocery store that was notorious for having off brand food items. The quality absolutely stunk, but was at least 1/3 cheaper than anything you could get in a Krogers.

    It was better to still be eating crappy food at the end of the month than to have nothing at all.

    There were many times we bought chunks of mystery meat out of the "Reduced for Quick Sale" knowing full well that we had better boil it for at least a day unless we wanted to be poisoned.

  • T||

    I had a similar store near where I lived in college. You had to eat the food the day you bought it if you wanted to beat the expiry date.

  • Tony||

    By cut corners you mean kill more people. Is there something wrong with preventing that in the first place? This egg problem can be directly traced to the easing of regulations--otherwise you'd have to argue that egg producers have become increasingly less self-interested, or something.

    Yeah preach that old time religion. Pay no attention to facts or numbers!

  • ||

    LOL, OK that dude makes a lot of sense.

    Lou
    www.isp-logs.es.tc

  • ||

    "Over a half billion eggs have been recalled based on concerns about salmonella contamination."

    And they come from only two farms in Iowa. Those poor chickens must be severely overworked.

  • Sam & Ella||

    Don't blame us.

  • Sal Manila||

    Or me.

  • SIV||

    This is one of the few issues where you can hope to split progressives and get a small faction over to the free market/pro-liberty side.For a little while anyways.

  • Pope Jimbo||

    The problem SIV is that the reasons they are anti-FDA are even sillier than a belief in Big Government.

    For instance, some of them think it is all a plot by the FDA to force more irradiation of food.

  • ||

    Money quote from your link:

    Dead food leads to dead people.

  • Knoss||

    Its a plot by God. It must be; who else created samonella which has been killing people long before the FDA cam into existance or people even knew what bacteria are.

  • Rich||

    Hey, while we're regulatin', can we change "salmonella" to "chickenella"?

  • Lefty4Life||

    How about punchinella?

  • ||

    Yes We Can!

  • ||

    Food should not be distributed until it has been directly inspected by government experts. In addition, food should only be distributed via bullet trains powered by means other than demon fossil fuels.

  • The Other Kevin||

    Wow, think of all the jobs that would create or save!

  • ||

    Or save indeed! Why, I just saved 100,000 just posting that comment!

  • ||

    Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey argues that giving the FDA more power may offer the illusion of increased food safety while likely slowing down actual progress.

    "Look busy, everybody!"

  • ||

    Just wondering - wouldn't cooking eggs properly destroy salmonella bacteria? How much of these illnesses are due to improper food preparation?

  • Pope Jimbo||

    Cooking even the infected eggs would kill the salmonella germs.

    You have to think of the kids, though. What about all the kids who will eat raw cookie dough and get sick. What about all the little Golden Glovers who drink a cup of raw eggs trying to be like Rocky?

  • kinnath||

    If you like your eggs over easy, you are spinning the wheel.

  • ||

    kinnath: Don't you mean "spinning the chamber"?

  • Madbiker||

    In all likelihood, all of them. It does not exonerate the egg producers, but the consumer is warned not to eat raw or runny eggs due to the risk of illness associated with that practice.

    It doesn't stop me from eating my sunny-and-runny eggs every day, or drinking raw milk, eating raw milk goat brie, sushi, or pork cooked medium. I go to reputable producers and hope I don't end up as the first of their customers to get food poisoning.

    Assuming food is safe just because it has some FDA label on it only speaks to the growing dependence many have on the Government as final arbiter of all that is good, healthy, and holy for the 'Murrican people.

  • Tony||

    Cooking eggs properly means not overcooking them. Life without runny yolks is not worth living.

  • ||

    I would hate to eat your cake.

  • Ted S.||

    Someone left my cake out in the rain.
    I don't think that I can take it
    'Cause it took so long to bake it
    And I'll never have that recipe again....

  • ||

    "The decline in foodborne illnesses was taking place even as media reports on food safety grew from about 22,000 reports in 1998 to over 60,000 last year."

    We had a LOT more media/news sources in 2009 than we did in 1998. Counting what's on the web, we must have 10x as many nowadays.
    I would not be surprised if virtually all stories about anything are reported more now than 12 years ago.

    Don't disagree with the premise of the article, and I love Bailey's work...I just don't give it a free pass.

    P.S. I like the idea of eating at McDonald's if I'm worried about my food being healthy. :)

  • Chad||

    It's not about the number of regulations or their length, it is about the quality of those regulations.

    For example, the whole housing fiasco would have been prevented with one eight-word regulation: Thou shalt not lever more than ten percent.

    See how easy that is?

  • ||

    Why, they should ban debt altogether! Brilliant!

  • ||

    I'm not really sure what you mean by a quality regulation - would you mind giving an example of a quality regulation that would have prevented this salmonella outbreak?

  • ||

    Banning eggs, chickens, and anything else capable of transmitting salmonella. And salmon.

  • -||

    And Ella.

  • Tncm||

    Why, we can even legislate a 10% growth in the economy while we're at it; maybe ban unemployment, too!

  • ||

    @Stephen: fair question.
    @Tncm: that is the silliest response I've ever heard. You don't think that it's a problem if businesses can charge whatever interest they want? I mean, I'm going to guess (since I'm at reason.com) that you'll say, "Yes." But it's hard for me to understand what I assume to be your reasoning. [nothing personal - I'm a socialist who used to haunt this place for a while, back when]

  • Tncm||

    If you're a socialist then I'm not going to waste my time on you. If you've read about the monopoly problem, the socialist economic calculation problem, the public utility problem, and the incentive problem, but you're still a socialist, then there is no hope for you.

  • Tony||

    If you've read a gum wrapper and are still a libertarian there's no hope for you.

  • Tncm||

    Gum rappers carry political messages? Most of the ones I get come with, say, a short comic or the ingredients in said bubble gum. What brand do you buy?

  • Tony||

    I gave up gum for cigarettes.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Sounds good, Chad. So... why didn't Fannie Mae get shitcanned, again?

  • MNG||

    Silly American public! Don't they know the libertarian way would be to let bad eggs be sold, have consumers get sick and die, and then let the good sense of the consumer punish those companies with really, really bad reputations?

    Oh, and the people who die can bring torts. But no pain and suffering, and such, you know, tort reform!

  • ||

    So, I guess we should continue with the Democrat/Republican way which is to increase the scope and power of government, produce onerous regulations and increase the cost of doing business so that only a few large producers (Big Egg, if you will) will remain.

  • MNG||

    "increase the cost of doing business so that only a few large producers (Big Egg, if you will) will remain."

    Dude, that is the case now...

  • ||

    Which is why I used the word "continue." Besides, the article noted that 192 companies own 95% of the laying hens - there's certainly room for more regulation and increased costs to narrow that number down.

  • MNG||

    OK, so there has been this amazing concentration sans the proposed powers, but we should worry that the proposed powers would cause concentration problems.

    Okey-dokey!

  • ||

    Right, because the consolidation of the food industry happened in a total vacuum where there were no onerous regulations and the attendant high costs of said regulations.

  • MNG||

    Ok, we now go into religious type territory since there was no time in our history that there were not some food regulations.

    Saying we can't pass this because it would lead to consolidation is like saying we can't pass it because it will lead to Michael Bay making really bad movies...

  • ||

    I suppose our history begins in 1906 with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act?

    I'm not suggesting that regulation should not exist at all. There should be basic protection for the consumer. However, when regulatory changes are proposed, who has a tremendous input on said rule changes? The big players in the affected industry who want to stifle competition. There is almost no consideration for the consumer's safety or well-being.

  • Mr. Blackman||

    MNG went full retard, ignore it.

  • ||

    [Takes shotgun and shoots MNG's leg off, to get rid of a barely visible wart on his knee.]

  • MNG||

    I guess I just don't see what is being proposed as equivalent to a "shot gun blast."

  • ||

    [Aims at head to address virtually invisible pimple.]

  • ||

    Sorry, I screwed that one up. Let me try again:

    [Aims shotgun at head to correct myopia.]

  • Bingo||

    Because libertarians just want to let the evul corpurashuns poison the world without paying for damages!

    That's right, MNG. You set those straw men up and burn em right back down! A master of rhetoric, pat yourself on the back for your skills of logic and debate.

  • MNG||

    Well, that is kind of the point. Damages strike me as an insufficient safeguard. They happen only after people are already harmed. an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

    Also, I have to love it when libertarians champion tort "reform" one day, and then offer their fealty to the tort system when challenged on regulation...

  • Tncm||

    Stupid free market. I mean, it's not like competition and poor producers being punished in the marketplace has lead to a dramatic increase in the standard of living for all Americans, right?

    In fact, why don't we just put all the levers of the economy in the hands of one supreme, all-knowing body; say, a group of "central planners", if you will. And all the workers of the country can be represented in like, another committee or something, a kind of "Soviet". And it'll be a called a "dictatorship of the ..." of the prawn? Of the poles? I dunno, I'll have to get back to you.

  • ||

    Ooh, you mean a "dictatorship of the proletariat!" Sign me up; also, you have no idea what that means.

    And ... no more trolling for me.
    Does it count as trolling if you believe what you're saying?

  • Tncm||

    Actually Zac, it's clear that you don't understand that nothing I've said on that article is serious, and I happen to be mocking Chad for being an empty-headed progressive shill.

    And please drop the holier-than-thou act, buddy; I know what the theoretical dictatorship of the proletariat is, anyone who has taken World History Freshman year has, it's not a difficult concept.

  • ||

    "...and the people who die can bring torts." Reminds me of people who go on about the "victims of 9/11" being offended about the "ground zero mosque". It's kind of hard to take something to court when you're dead.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    MNG, you are a piece of shit.

  • MNG||

    "deaths from foodborne illness have dropped more than 100-fold from 1900 to today."

    Quite a bit has changed since that time I expect, including the creation of the FDA and similar agencies and regulatory regimes.

  • Bingo||

    Also maybe small things like antibiotics but I'm sure medical advances sold for a profit have a negligible impact on disease compared to the institution of a new government bureaucracy.

  • MNG||

    Well, yeah, as I said so much has changed from then until now that might be pertinent to this drop. You'd think one might want to explore that nuance before suggesting that the death rate from such illnesses having fallen suggests private actors are less likely to sell dangerous foods.

  • ||

    You forgot polio!

  • _Bill_||

    In order to protect the egg market, the Govt will sieze all laying hens, turn the production over to the bureaucrats and the cost of eggs will reach $15 a dozen and offer no real protection against future salmonella outbreaks. Meanwhile outlaw families who own a few laying hens for their own consumption are arrested and charged with felony endangerment, their house and land seized and jailed for unregistered eggs. PETA offers to care for the jailed/abused laying hens only to kill them and throw the corpses in a grocery store dumpster in VA.

  • nekoxgirl||

    As hyperbolic as that scenario should seem, after what I read here a few months ago about the Amish farmers just trying to sell some milk...

  • Byron||

    All under the ubiquitous authority of the Commerce Clause, of course.

  • ||

    The head of the FDA is named Hamburg? You can't make this stuff up!!

  • ||

    This was touched on by the article, but let me relate my personal experience.

    I used to work with someone that had a small ranch, which he raised chickens on because it was so easy and he figured it was free eggs and meat. He didn't do anything other than build a roost for them. They even fed themselves.

    Whenever he had extra eggs (dozens) he'd bring them in to the office. and wow were these good eggs! About 50% more yolk than your used to. Various shapes, sizes, and colors. And the taste! Never had anything like it.

    I would have paid for these. Most people would have, and at a premium. But he couldn't sell them. He looked into it, and the regulations were nothing short of a nightmare.

    So, because of that, we get eggs that are safety inspected, uniform, and very, very dull.

    It makes you wonder what else has been regulated into blandness.

  • Tony||

    Perhaps mass industrialization has more to do with the poor quality of industrial eggs than onerous regulations. I agree that home-grown eggs are superior to anything you can get in wal-mart, but that has everything to do with what the chickens are allowed to eat.

  • Tncm||

    Very true, Tony. In fact, we should go back to the days when there was no industrialization; the good ol' 1700s. Back then, everything was made by hand, the standard of living was that of the average modern-day African, and people could look forward to living to the ripe old age of 40. But then evil industrialization had to come along and destroy all that was good in the world.

  • Tony||

    Keep your panties on. In everything there is good and bad. I was commenting solely on the tastiness of industrialized eggs. That's perhaps a worthy sacrifice for universal access to cheap protein. Of course it also can lead to more serious pathogen-related crises.

  • Tncm||

    I mean, lets just ignore that because of industrialization, the quality of food has dramatically improved; everything from livestock to crops is now healthier to eat.

    My God, you're such a shill.

  • Tony||

    Yes I'm a shill for critical thinking. I never said industrialized food was all bad. But it does has some downsides. Same goes for pretty much everything.

  • Tncm||

    No, you're a shill for not thinking at all. Because of industrialization, all food is now safer and more plentiful. As the saying goes, "Shit Happens", but I'd like to think that for most people (but you are a progressive), it's pretty clear that industrialization was a good thing.

    And another thing, are you sure you're not a Marxist-Leninist or some other flavor of communist, Tony? Based on comments I've read from you, you're radically farther to the left then almost everybody else in the Democrat Party.

  • Tncm||

    *Democratic, sorry.

  • Tony||

    Tncm,

    Registered Democrat. I don't know what I'd call myself really because I care less for labels than for pragmatic solutions to people's problems.

    This is a stupid argument. Since you're so sensitive to strawman arguments I hesitate to read you as defending industrialized food as an unalloyed good with absolutely no downsides, but it sounds like that's what you're saying. I'm saying there is good and bad in everything. E.g., coal is good for cheap electricity, but it also pollutes.

  • Jim||

    How does salmonella even get into eggs? I think we have another scare effort by big gov & big news. Sounds like swine flue again.

  • ||

    Rats shitting in the feed, according to my wife.

  • Jim||

    That just doesn't sound right. Rats have shit in feed as long as there has been feed. No way the evil germs get into the egg. I call bullshit. Swine flue all over again. I believe we are being played for fools still again. Then again maybe I should trust the fuckers spreading the fear.

  • ||

    Fine. You tell my wife she's wrong.

    Actually, she just told me she heard someone talking about that on TV.

  • FDA||

    Eggs can only safely be consumed via suppository. Hence their shape.

  • scarf||

    All of the agencies and all of the regulations and we still rely on the self serving efforts of producers to ensure our food is safe.

  • jemo||

    That's right, MNG. You set those straw men up and burn em right back down! A master of rhetoric, pat yourself on the back for your skills of logic and debate.

  • bags||

    You have to think of the kids, though. What about all the kids who will eat raw cookie dough and get sick. What about all the little Golden Glovers who drink a cup of raw eggs trying to be like Rocky?

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Why, the answer is clear:

    More regulation is always good.

    Right, liberals?

  • Tony||

    You aren't one of the idiots here who throw around strawman accusations like confetti are you? I get you guys mixed up.

  • Carl||

    Born and raised in the winter lettuce capital of America.

    Pass the food safety act and goodbye to the American Farmer and hello to the corporate farm. Crops planted by Cargill, pests and weeds eliminated by Monsanto and the crops pureed into a nice nutrional loaf for your consumption with all nutritional content set by the FDA.

    The big boys will be the only ones who can afford to pay for the permits to guarantee "food safety"

    Give your neighboor veggies from your garden as a gift? Not unless you will be comfortable with committing a felony.

    I can go on...

  • DesigNate||

    I would be comfortable with committing a felony for that. Unfortunately I live in an apartment on the second floor so I'm not going to be growing much of anything.

  • nekoxgirl||

    Never been happier that all my eggs come from local farms. Of course, I'm sure the FDA would love to put them out of business so I'll be forced to buy potentially comtaminated eggs from their big Agro friends. Because the real problem isn't giant corporate farms that never see their customers and thus, don't care if they are poisoning them. It's really caused from not enough regulations.

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