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.