Food Safety: Who Cares?


Paul Schwennesen, an Arizona rancher, writes at The Freeman on the lack of need and perverse effects of recent federal efforts to ensure "food safety":

isn't food safety a pressing concern, a public-health problem we can't afford to fool around with?  Problem is, the problem isn't.  Emotional rants that "thousands die every year!" do not help us grapple with the scope or magnitude of this alleged threat.  Let's try some perspective:  According to the Centers for Disease Control, the estimated number of deaths caused by foodborne illness numbers somewhere between five and eight thousand a year (down a substantial 35 percent, by the way, from ten years ago).  Sounds pretty bad, eh?….consider that the same number of people die by intentionally strangling themselves each year.  Or that the same number of people die from Alzheimer's in California alone each year.  Or that four times that number die each year accidentally falling off of things….

The food industry is no exception; it's impossible to envision a wave of enthusiastic newcomers clamoring at the gates to enter the food business now that the FDA has been granted the most sweeping extension of powers in 70 years…..The people who do represent a large part of the industry are the small, local, independent operators who have been squeaking by for decades.  This kind of regulatory barrage is exactly the sort of thing to make them call it quits.  BSE (mad cow) regulations pushed our predecessor to hang up his hat.  The increasing silliness over E. coli testing pushed his predecessor over the brink years ago.  Warranted or not, an increasingly difficult regulatory environment will always winnow out the small players, leaving the field more sparse than before.

Of course the demand for food hasn't gone down, so how does the system accommodate a hungry public?  Well, that's where Cargill, Tyson, Monsanto, and the rest of the Big Food set come in….

Rancher Schwennesen suggests that deregulation might guarantee safer food than regulation:

There is little or no incentive for me to create a remarkably safer production system because my processes are effectively in the hands of our state inspector.  The incentive among producers is to win the race toward the bottom, where you can most cheaply and easily meet the minimum standard.  Imagine for a moment what the food world would look like if we made food safety a competitive advantage.  What if I could demonstrate (through third-party quality assurance, a sophisticated testing regime, or something completely unthought of) that my beef was quantitatively safer than my competition?  I suspect that the maligned self-interest of "money-grubbing capitalists" would be instantly harnessed toward the greater public good.  I for one would probably behave considerably differently if I were continually striving for the next-higher grade on a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" scale instead of aiming simply for the "Inspected — Passed" stamp…..

Regulations are good for imposing minimums, but not at creating excellence.  Since our food safety "problem" is clearly in the vanishing margins, excellence is what we need.  This can only really be attained when incentives are structured to push our producers (and consumers) to go the extra step to make food as safe as it can possibly be.

I wrote last April about fears over earlier versions of this new Food Safety Modernization Act.

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  1. Is it true that the USDA pays a guy to just stand their and watch each side of beef get processed?

    1. he squints very, very hard, so he is able to see the bacteria on the beef.

    2. Actually the guy works for the USDA but is paid by the processor.

  2. So what’s up with those ads? Is it really that big of a problem? I purchase things almost exclusively on my debit card, so I’d like to know what the story is. I understand that the concern is based on some of the foreseen consequences of last year’s financial reform bill. Anyone have any perspective they’d like to share?

    1. is a site paid for by the banks to change a ruling which holds what the banks can charge retailers per charge being .17 because they want to be able to charge retailers whatever they want. They are saying the costs then will ultimately be them charging the consumers more for debit cards and other account charges, which more likely than not they will do anyways since they charge you for everything under the sun they can.

  3. This is the USA. We are no longer interested in excellence. We are more concerned with everyone being “equal”.

  4. I wonder how much it costs to bribe Mr. Food Inspector Man?

  5. Food safety laws are a public health accomplishment and should not be rolled back.

    Since 1900, safer and healthier foods have resulted from decreases in microbial contamination and increases in nutritional content. Identifying essential micronutrients and establishing food-fortification programs have almost eliminated major nutritional deficiency diseases such as rickets, goiter, and pellagra in the United States.

    1. I won’t disagree completely.
      However, I will bring up a few critiques that get overlooked.
      First, studies on food safety often do not distinguish between illinesses due to producer contamination and poor food handling practices by the consumer – because they can’t. How long did you leave that potato salad out before you put it in back in the refrigerator?
      Indeed, the false sense of security when people think that they don’t have to wash or cook food throughly may be more of a problem than can be alleviated by ever more stringent regulation at the processing plant.

      Next, statistics can be manipulated – figures lie and liars figure. Do you think our unemployment figures are accurate, or do you think that all of those figures are manipulated by whatever administration is in power to show “improvement?”
      The fact is, of course, that government employees are under tremendous pressure to make the last initiative look effective.
      35% reduction!?!?? Were food processors pooping in the food? Just like during any presidential campaign where trough figures are compared against peak figures to make whatever point someone wants to make, the source, diagnosis, and confirmation of food contamination is not simple nor easily rectified.
      Finally, one obscure point – more and more studies are showing that excessively clean surrouding lead to later life health problems. We evolved in a sea or microorganisms. Indeed, not allowing the “good” bacteria in us may make us more vulnearable to pathogens, as well as deprive us of the exposures that can enhance our immune systems.

  6. Of all the things I worry about killing me, food poisoning comes in between avalanches and meteor strikes.

    This was as true when I was eating food from third world street vendors as it is when I’m eating in the USA today.

    Regulatory fanboys are just unwitting stooges for large corporations. ADM, Mattel and the NEA all thank you.

  7. Problem is, the problem isn’t.

    Aaaannnndddd, I immediately like this guy and want to read everything he has to say.

  8. What if I could demonstrate (through third-party quality assurance, a sophisticated testing regime, or something completely unthought of) that my beef was quantitatively safer than my competition?


  9. THE JUNGLE!!!!!1

  10. If the gubmint really cared about food borne illness they would mandate that all food be irradiated.

  11. Though i agree it is the primary responsibility of producers and consumers to enhance food safety, i disagree with the fact that we should not care whether we are consuming unhealthy or uninspected food. food handlers certificate

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