The Sickening Nature of Many Food-Safety Regulations

Food-safety regulations don't always mean safer food.

Nearly 18 months after passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, a landmark piece of legislation that granted new powers and authority to the FDA, the legislation is still mired in congressional debates over how to fund it. If this status update sounds familliar, it's with good reason. The FSMA found itself in a similar place six months ago and a year ago.

As FSMA implementation treads water, my own latest piece of research on the subject has just been published by the Northeastern University Law Journal. It's based on a talk I gave as a panelist at the journal's 2011 food-law conference—held just weeks after the FSMA became law.

In my article, "The Food-Safety Fallacy: More Regulation Doesn't Necessarily Make Food Safer," I use ancient and more recent historical examples of flawed rules to rebut the common misconception that more food-safety regulation means safer food. Rather, history shows us that food-safety regulations have often made food (and, consequently, people) less safe.

How can a food-safety regulation make people less safe? There are several ways. You'll want to read the entire article if you'd like more examples, but I think these three should suffice to illustrate my point.

First, a flawed food-safety regulation can prevent people from gaining access to a healthy food. In 18th century France, the country's parliament banned consumption of the potato. Among the host of diseases the govenment mistakenly attributed to consumption of the tuber was leprosy. This was particularly problematic because at the time France's government issued the potato edict, the country was in the midst of a famine.

Potato-loving Francophile Thomas Jefferson would have witnessed the ban firsthand. He later condemned it in strong terms in a famous passage from his Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he lays out his vision of the regulatory authority of government as pertains to religion, food, and medicine:

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. . . . Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our [British-subjugated] souls are now. Thus in France the emetic was once forbidden as a medicine, and the potato as an article of food.

As I note in my article, "It took the efforts of one Frenchman whose life had been saved by the potato to reverse the ban."

Another way that a food-safety regaultion can make people less safe is when the rule actively promotes the spread of disease. A perfect illustration of this can be found in the USDA's 90-year meat-inspection scheme—labeled "poke and sniff" by critics and supporters alike—that the agency replaced only in the 1990s.

Poke-and sniff often entailed having an inspector “poke” a piece of meat with a rod and “sniff” the rod to determine, in the inspector’s opinion, whether the meat contained pathogens. This method meant that the hands, eyes, and noses of inspectors were to be literally the front line of the USDA’s food-safety regime.

The problem? "[I]f a piece of meat was in fact tainted but the inspector’s eyes or nose could not detect the contamination after he poked the meat, the inspector would again use his hands or the same rod to poke the next piece of meat, and the next, and so on."

This approach likely resulted in USDA inspectors transmitting filth from diseased meat to fresh meat on a daily basis. Food may actually have been safer when the USDA failed to regularly inspect some plants for a mere three decades.

Related to this latter point, the third way in which a food-safety regulation can make people less safe is when the regulation attaches a false veneer of safety to a particular food based on the public's misplaced faith in the ability of regulators to ensure food is safe.

The summer 2010 recall of hundreds of millions of eggs due to negligent USDA oversight at the laying facility—even as the agency's egg graders provided the public with the false veneer of food safety—is a perfect illustration.

While the FDA used the recall to argue for more authority to inspect egg-laying facilities, the truth is that USDA egg graders already on site simply dropped the ball when it came to ensuring the eggs they graded were safe. The USDA was quick to refute the charge its graders had any duty or authority to oversee the sanitary quality of the facilities in which they worked, but

This characterization of a narrow USDA role finds strong opposition from the USDA’s own American Egg Board (AEB), which “is funded by a national legislative checkoff” program and which consists of a board of eighteen members who are “appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.” The AEB website states that USDA graders first—before any grading takes place—examine eggs “for both interior and exterior quality.” Furthermore, an egg grader may only stamp eggs as meeting a certain grade if the grader determines “that the eggs have been processed, packaged and certified under federal supervision. . . . Plant processing equipment, facilities, sanitation and operating procedures are continuously monitored by the USDA grader.”

The federal government does have a legitimate role to play in making our food safer. But preventing people from making choices to eat certain foods based on absurd notions of toxicity (be it potatoes or Four Loko); basing food inspection on pseudoscientific methodologies and requiring all foods to pass within that uniform (and uniformly) ridiculous system (as with "poke and sniff" or with some of the inspections Joel Salatin criticized in my recent Reason interview with him); and attaching a false veneer of safety to certain foods based on their inspection status, are all thorougly unhelpful, wasteful, and dishonest ways to ensure food safety.

To learn more, read my article at the Northeastern University Law Journal website.

Baylen J. Linnekin, a lawyer, is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates in favor of food freedom—the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, cook, eat, and drink the foods of our own choosing.

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.

  • Pagan Priestess||

    Frost.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Nixon

  • ||

    Joffrey.

  • Ice Nine||

    Balanchine

  • ||

    Balanchine? Hah! Ours is the fury, motherfucker. *Spit*

  • Ice Nine||

    Balanchine?

    There's more than one Joffrey. Weren't loose associations the name of the game?

  • Pip from the forge||

    In other words, government regulations are an assault on integrity.

  • DJF||

    A classic example is when the US government stopped Creekstone Farms Premium Beef from testing its beef for Mad Cow disease. The government argued that it would make other beef producers look bad and so would be an unfair advantage. The people who wanted to have their beef tested were of course ignored.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/.....efer=japan

  • ||

    The government's logic is undeniable. Be silent, serf.

  • David_TheMan||

    "The federal government does have a legitimate role to play in making our food safer."

    No it doesn't. Linnekin loses any ground you have when you concede this point.

    The producer/seller has an obligation to make their food safe or risk litigation.

  • Pip from the forge||

    A government entity may act as an impartial arbiter of disputes (a judge) but that's where its involvement should end. Ideally, private food producers should be able to submit their products to private, independent testing facilities (think UL, but for food) but they should not be required to do so. An individual should be free to choose tested or untested products. The winners will be 1) companies who have earned a reputation for quality and consistency (both the testing companies and the producers) and, of course 2) their customers, whose trust the producers and testers have earned.

  • Sevo||

    "An individual should be free to choose tested or untested products."

    Works right now, for the disbelievers.
    Pretty sure the fresh fish you buy is 'inspected' by the folks who caught it, the fish-monger and you.

  • Pip from the forge||

    Yup. That's why reputation and integrity is paramount, and why government regulations cannot guarantee either.

  • Fucking_Moderate||

  • ||

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Still waiting (and hoping) for an obit on that obnoxious SlapChop™/Schticky™ fuckstick.

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  • 35N4P2BYY||

    No luck with that but he did get arrested for punching out a hooker.

  • anon||

    See, I don't understand anyone that would punch a hooker. If you bareback a hooker, you should -expect- to have an STD afterwards, leaving no room to be upset.

    I guess the condom might have broken, and in a fit of rage, he lashed out, but even then you should understand those risks.

    Then again, I don't feel like I understand most people.

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    Actually, the likelihood of catching an STD from a prostitute is much less than from a one night stand. The major vectors of STDs (75%) are high school and college age people. So stay away from those hot young coeds because they are the ones who are dangerous to your health. The lies told about hookers are in the same league as the government's lies about food growers and the government's ability to keep food safe. If you are reading Reason, you should know that.

  • ||

    His name is Vince. He's just a man, like you or I.

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    Vince Offer, hooker biter

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...the inspector would again use his hands or the same rod to poke the next piece of meat, and the next, and so on.

    Yeah, yeah. I think that's the same method Reagan's people used to invent the AIDS.

  • ||

    Heh....it is the same methods docs on the battlefield used to inspect bullet wounds up until the late 1800's.....poke a finger in, feel around....go to next guy...poke finger in, feel around....
    Gee Gods how horrible. No wonder they had to saw legs and arms off by the wagon load.

    Saw Davy Crockett's rifle once....a .32 cal. percussion that shot round balls. How pitifully weak....then I realized, back then if you got hit by even a BB gun like that, bugs took care of the rest; you were doomed.

    Piercing swords killed on the same principle....thin pieces of stiffened wire with a blood groove in it ( to let air and germs into the wound ).

    With all that historical experience the FDA was using the poke and sniff method until the 90's? That alone is justification for disbanding them.

  • ||

    And trying them in criminal court for their fuck-ups, too.

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    Which one of our esteemed fellow commenters wrote De Bello Lemures? I read it last night and enjoyed it thoroughly.

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    Thanks.

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  • PapayaSF||

    I think they are pieces of meat cooked in a wok with some green onions.

  • anon||

    The federal government does have a legitimate role to play in making our food safer.

    Since when?

  • ||

    "The federal government does have a legitimate role to play in making our food safer."

    No. It does not, and it must not. How, in the name of all that is good and holy in the universe, did you come to that conclusion?

  • anon||

    But... But... RPA, you're saying I SHOULD HAVE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR MY OWN DECISIONS!?!?!?

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH

  • ||

    Laughable, I know. Don't worry, Anon, stupid libertard horsemen like me will never triumph over the noble overlords and their safety schemes!1

  • Pip from the forge||

    stupid libertard horsemen like me

    Identifying and acknowledging your illness is the first step toward recovery and happiness. Just 11 steps to go!

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    USDA beef inspections go beyond approving of whether or not the meat is safe to consume. They also sometimes determine how desirable the meat should be to the consumer. Which is a completely retarded role for a governmental body to be involved in. Why the fuck would I trust farmer JimBob's dipspitting friend from USDA to tell me I am buying a "choice" steak? The government's interference in product marketing is a fucking corrupt race to the bottom.

  • ||

    "They also sometimes determine how desirable the meat should be to the consumer."

    FDA - " We will tell you what you like and what you dont like."

  • Pip from the forge||

    I feel your pain, but USDA beef grading is not based on arbitrary adjectives. "Choice," "prime" and "select" are words with real meanings. They may be used as a guide, not a guarantee.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    I know what they mean, and I disregard them. Grading isn't as scientific as they have led themselves to believe. Results vary subjectively from grader to grader. Private concerns can come up with their own systems that serve the same purpose, and they do- as long as the USDA doesn't bitch about "unfair marketing" or such shit.

  • Pip from the forge||

    Sounds like you have an ax to grind, but if you think "select" beef is every bit as good as "choice," you should buy it. You'll save a lot of money and maybe sleep better.

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    It sounds like you're retarded, Pip.
    Cows takes a bullet.
    Hide comes off.
    Carcass hung upside down and cleaned.
    Inspector comes around stamping what he stamps. There's non Angus, Australian, Watermelon, or Cinnamon Jumbo once they're hanging meat. But the inspectors want us to believe it's so.
    You're a complete fkn idiot if you think there is.
    Egg grading is worse.
    Those eggs can expire, get sent back for re-grading, and then end up on your store shelves up to nine - NINE - months after they came out ofo the hen's ass.
    Statist jackoff.

  • Fucking_Moderate||

    Who WOULD you trust? Farmer JimBob? Or farmer JoeBob who says JimBob's meat is tainted? Or neither?

  • Kreel Sarloo||

    What interestingly logic free comments you make.

  • Jordan||

    "While the FDA used the recall to argue for more authority to inspect egg-laying facilities, the truth is that USDA egg graders already on site simply dropped the ball when it came to ensuring the eggs they graded were safe."

    That's exactly why market regulators are superior to government regulators. When a private entity screws up, they loose customers and possibly go bankrupt. When a government entity screws up, they get a bigger budget.

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    lose not loose...

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    Eggsactly right Jordan.

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    First, a flawed food-safety regulation can prevent people from gaining access to a healthy food. In 18th century France, the country's parliament banned consumption of the potato. Among the host of diseases the govenment mistakenly attributed to http://www.lunettesporto.com/l.....-3_11.html consumption of the tuber was leprosy. This was particularly problematic because at the time France's government issued the potato edict, the country was in the midst of a famine.

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    A classic example is when the US government stopped Creekstone Farms Premium Beef from testing its beef for Mad Cow disease. The government argued that it would make other beef producers look bad and so would be an unfair advantage. The people who wanted to have their beef tested were of course ignored.

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    While the FDA used the recall to argue for more authority to inspect egg-laying facilities, the truth is that USDA egg graders already on site simply dropped the ball when it came to ensuring the eggs they graded were safe. The USDA was quick to refute the charge its graders had any duty or authority to oversee the sanitary quality of the facilities in which they worked, but

  • InalienableWrights||

    The only person that can make you safe is YOU.

    This child like reliance on the state to a “make us safe”. Which BTW is not it’s job has done the exact opposite. The government approval-monopoly, has brought us fluoride enhanced baby water at Walmart. Mercury in our mouths and in our vaccines. (Don’t believe the lie,as mercury is still in many vaccines.) It has brought us, the bought and paid for food pyramid. The government oversight of our food and medicine, has brought us epidemic levels of cancer, autism, obesity, and a plethora of degenerative diseases.

    We need a return to freedom. We don’t need a single new law. All we need is to be left alone to make (hopefully) informed decisions for ourselves and our families.

    If you are an entrepreneur, we need independent, free market organizations that keep and eye on these health dangers and concerns. In the free market the FDA would not exist. It would have long ago been sued out of existence for incompetence and many of it’s members would be in jail if not worse.

    I would love to see many organizations do for food what UL (a private free market laboratory) did for electrical safety. The Weston A Price society comes to mind as do others.

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