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Reason: Most of your questions are centered around the issue of people's satisfaction with current food policies and/or levels of food regulation. In my opinion, food is highly regulated at the federal, state, and local levels. Is it possible that your respondents wrongly believe food is not regulated very much at all, and so they perceive a need for more regulations to fill a void that — at least in my opinion — is an imaginary one? Alternately, is it possible that people who want things like safer food (which I agree is something an overwhelming majority of people do want) are unaware that — as I've written — food is already highly regulated and that more regulations don't necessarily make food safer?
JL: Yes, it may be that people are unaware of many of the existing regulations. More fundamentally, however, I think we have a food culture (think Micha[el] Pollan, Oprah Winfrey, or Mark Bittman) that has promoted mistrust in modern food and agriculture, which has produced a misleading belief about the state of food in America. Our food system has never been safer or higher quality but this is not the image most people have in mind when they think about our modern food system. Moreover, the pervading food culture seems to have forgotten the incentives farmers, food companies, and supermarkets to provide safe and affordable food. “Big Food” has been demonized and people perceive “Big Food” as some sort of omniscient manipulator, but I would posit that many of the companies in this category are one food safety scare away from bankruptcy. If I’m right, what do you think are their incentives to produce safe food?
Reason: What do you think are the implications of your study for those who, like me, believe in what I call food freedom--the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat, and drink the foods of our own choosing?
JL: As I mentioned to you, I have a book coming out in April titled The Food Police: A Well Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate, published by Crown Forum. So, I personally find the results a bit disheartening though not totally surprising. Food is a highly emotional issue, and when many people see things they don’t like about food – whether it be obesity, pesticides, or gestation crates – it is a natural impulse to seek redress via the government. The way I interpret these results is that they reflect people’s gut reaction when it comes to food regulation. However, the study doesn’t tell us anything about whether people may change their mind when informed of the costs or unintended consequences of these policies. Moreover, I have spent the last 15 years studying consumer behavior when it comes to food, and a couple things are quite clear. First, the research shows people are much less supportive of regulation when they are informed of the costs. Second, my research shows that what people say on surveys often fails to line up with what they actually do in the grocery store. People often express much higher willingness-to-pay to avoid new food technologies than what they are really willing to pay when real money and real food is on the line. So, while I believe this survey is informative and perhaps the only way to get at some of the issues we want to know about, the results must be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I think those of us that would prefer more freedom in food have a tough road ahead in terms of convincing our friends and neighbors on some of these issues. I personally believe there are some real dangers in the ramping up of food regulation that endanger our ability to eat affordable, high quality food. Fortunately, we have a good case to make and reason is on our side.
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, share, cook, eat, and drink the foods of our own choosing.