What Is Government's Proper Role in Reopening the Food Economy?

When it comes to the food economy, government should remember that workers and consumers call the shots.


Earlier this week, Pres. Trump issued an executive order mandating that America's meat processors remain open for business.

The order directs U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Purdue to "take all appropriate action… to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations[.]" It comes as a growing number of meat processors—plants where the vast majority of the nation's livestock animals are killed, cut up, and/or processed to be sold by grocers, restaurants, and others—have been forced to close temporarily or reduce output because a growing number of employees and USDA inspectors who work in the plants have been sickened or died from COVID-19. Consequently, the nation's meat supply is at risk, which is what spurred the president's order.

Yet the order doesn't appear to be terribly well thought out. The president may be able (under a 1950 law) to order plants to stay open. But he can't order their workers to work.

"One logical outcome of the order is that plants will close due to strikes by union plant workers and/or [USDA] inspectors," I tweeted as Trump announced the order. "Gov[ernmen]t may force a plant to stay open, but it can't (nor should it) force scared/sick/dying people to risk their lives for hot dogs."

As I predicted, a union representing plant workers blasted the order and meat plant workers in two states went on strike. "We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork, and poultry products," says union president Stuart Applebaum.

Forcing plants to stay open now could cause other, bigger problems, including "future waves of plant shutdowns far more economically devastating than the cost of getting it right, right now," argues a Bloomberg writer.

The Trump administration's ill-conceived and probably toothless meatpacking order highlights questions about the role government should play in reopening the food economy. Should federal, state, or local governments—or some combination—wield magic wands and tell restaurants, bars, meat processors, grocers, and other food businesses when to open and close, how to properly sanitize their spaces, or instruct these businesses how best to serve customers safely?

Government does these things already, to varying degrees, through a combination of licenses, permits, regulations, and inspections. For example, most food businesses in this country have a maximum occupancy or capacity, established usually by local regulation. Governments that want to mandate social distancing at restaurants might slash that maximum occupancy—say by half or more—at least until the pandemic ends or an effective vaccine has been developed and distributed widely.

But while governments may already have these powers, they don't have a great track record of using them successfully. As I've detailed many times in columns here at Reason and in my book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us, many well-intentioned food regulations don't make a lick of sense—even ones intended to keep eaters healthy and our food safe. 

Take the (since-repealed) California law that required foodservice workers to wear disposable gloves while preparing food, something that was intended to boost food safety but which experts pointed out actually made food more likely to be contaminated and less safe for consumers. 

Looking for a more current example? Given that the big meat plants are some of the largest food workplaces in the country and are subject to a host of federal regulations—and they've also been among the businesses hardest hit by the pandemic and have been ordered to stay open despite that fact—it's probably unreasonable not to ask whether we can trust the government's approach to combating and overcoming this pandemic.

That's particularly true now, since the food economy in two months probably won't resemble what it did two months ago. A report this week in The Atlantic predicts "restaurants will undergo a transformation unlike anything the industry has experienced since Prohibition." That likely includes government-mandated "social-distancing rules that will limit restaurant capacity in order to discourage large crowds." Grocery buying, which has changed already, could possibly be regulated for the worse, with the largest union of grocery store workers in Western Canada arguing that households should be limited to one store trip per week. 

Food businesses don't need more red tape. But like nearly everyone, I'm mostly guessing when it comes to ideas about what will most hurt or help as we reopen the food economy. That's why, as uncomfortable as it sounds, I think we should let restaurants, grocers, and other food businesses experiment with different approaches in order to find the best ones. The virus didn't change the fact that there is no one way to safely operate a restaurant or a grocery store. If regulations mandate one approach to creating COVID-unfriendly food spaces, then we will miss important opportunities to innovate and save lives. Rather than creating burdensome new rules, government—in partnership with scientists, the public health community, civil society, business, and others—should focus on studying, identifying, and communicating best (and worst) practices to businesses and the general public.

Ultimately, though, decisions about whether, when, and how to reopen a business are best left up to individuals and companies. Government has an important role to play, but regular Americans—restaurant owners, bartenders, meat plant workers, waiters, grocery clerks, baristas, and others—are the only ones who can revive the food economy.

NEXT: The Seen and the Unseen of COVID-19

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  1. But like nearly everyone, I’m mostly guessing when it comes to ideas about what will most hurt or help as we reopen the food economy.

    This premise is completely wrong, the food economy never closed.

    As for ideas, here is one: incrementalism. That is, whatever steps we take in the present to address the food economy should be very limited.

    1. That’s quibbling; “closed food economy” obviously is not literal. It only refers to this lockdown, with takeout only, carping about what is essential, etc.

      Your suggestion of “incrementalism” is meaningless. The current plans for releasing the lock downs are the very model of incrementalism and still involve the rule of politicians rather than any semblance of intelligence. The only real solution is get government out of the way and let the marketplace of ideas and reality figure it out.

      Everybody conveniently forgets the lockdowns were supposedly meant to flatten the curve; turns out it wasn’t necessary because the curves weren’t that steep to begin with, and the lockdowns should have been released long since.

      1. Nothing is as permanent as a temporary government program. Lockdowns and social distancing rules will not be an exception.

        1. For example, most food businesses in this country have a maximum occupancy or capacity, established usually by local regulation. Governments that want to mandate social distancing at restaurants might slash that maximum occupancy—say by half or more—at least until the pandemic ends or an effective vaccine has been developed and distributed widely.

          If reducing maximum occupancy rates so as to maintain proper social distancing at stores, restaurants, movie theaters, concerts, sporting events and any other place where people tend to congregate is a good idea until the pandemic ends, it’s a good idea until all known and unknown infectious diseases, including the seasonal flu and the common cold, are cured as well. Or until the heat death of the universe, whichever comes first.

          1. I read my state governor’s timeline. The final stage will be “indefinite” and will include “common sense, reasonable” (loosely translated as “arbitrary and capricious”) regulations that will be rigorously enforced. Thought health inspectors are a pain in the ass now? You’ll be wishing for last year’s inspections by the time this crisis is put to good use.

            1. West Coast Hitler, I mean Gavin Newsom, is talking about a 4 stage reopening.
              Stage 1 is now, with “essential” businesses only — grocery stores and Home Depot I guess.
              Stage 2 is “letting” people who work mostly outside go back to work, and oh yeah, reopening schools (the closing of which was one of the only effective means of slowing the spread of the virus), to ensure the flow of federal dollars per student-day, and the support of teacher unions. This should happen soon, we’re told (weeks not months).
              Stage 3 is reopening most other businesses, provided everyone wears masks, stands on the taped “X”, and all the buildings are 75 percent empty. Stage 3 is in months, not weeks, I guess whenever the state realizes the sales tax revenue is gone and they have to lay people off too.
              Stage 4 is allowing conventions and large gatherings and sports with actual spectators. Stage 4 can only be allowed when there is a vaccine — which could be never, or 4 years (the average for new vaccines), or maybe 2 years if we’re lucky and the FDA decides to stop being the FDA. I guess California will cede all the convention business to other states, keep all the theme parks closed, and give up on sports.

              1. Dude promised a plan for weeks and when he finally puts it out there it’s just this garbage. 4 stages, with stage 1 being right now and stage 4 being completely back to normal. I can’t wait until months from now when people are begging to move to stage 3 and Newsom smugly reminds us that we have to listen to the science. We’re never getting out of this mess.

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          1. Dude, I’ve been working from the comfort of my home for 2 months now.

      2. alephbet…I think we agree that the marketplace should really drive solutions. My only point is: Whatever steps are taken, they must be limited. The pendulum swung the other way during the pandemic, going too far.

        Example: A governor, with Legislative approval, issues a shelter-in-place directive that is limited, temporary and time-bound. This is Ok (to me) at a state level to address an emergency like the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic.

        Going too far: Instituting ‘Blue Laws’ during the shelter-in-place directive, a la Michigan. Or, prohibiting travel to a second home a la Michigan (and the People’s Republic of NJ to a lesser extent).

        BTW, I am not the guy who said ‘closed food economy’. Lannekin is. His premise is wrong.

        1. Exactly. Any directives should be local and specific to the circumstances of each community. Keep the federal government out of this.

        2. It was never okay at the state level. At most there should have been a few temporary tremble in place orders in New York and one or two other hard hit cities.

    2. Fuck off government.

  2. “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork, and poultry products,” says union president Stuart Applebaum.

    Amen! As a working person, I can assure you I care far more about my health than my food. I would gladly go without eating for several months if it means preventing any risk to my health.

    1. Ahem! People engaging in false narratives about how making sure people don’t unnecessarily congregate in the middle of a pandemic are going to get people killed.

      1. “Ahem! People engaging in false narratives about how making sure people don’t unnecessarily congregate in the middle of a pandemic are going to get people killed.”


    2. In the 2018-19 flu season 80,000 Americans died. Did you go out to eat then? 50% of COVID cases are asymptomatic. You’ve probably already had it. Stop being a pussy.

      1. 80,000 for the whole year with no mitigating measures, versus 67,000 in 6 weeks with the most sever lockdowns in history. Yeah, totally the same thing.

        1. “80,000 for the whole year with no mitigating measures, versus 67,000 in 6 weeks with the most sever lockdowns in history. Yeah, totally the same thing.”

          61K *AVERAGE* for the seasonal flu, *WITH* vaccines.
          Stuff your PANIC!!! flag up your ass, stick first, and fuck off.

          1. Only 45% of the population gets the flu shot, and the flu shot is at best only about 50% effective. And again, you are comparing a whole year to 6 weeks. So make a mental daguerreotype and extrapolate that to a year.

            1. way less than 45 percent get flu shots. I’d be surprised if it’s 15 percent.

            2. the flu season isn’t uniform throughout the 12 months either. most people get sick in the winter when the days are shorter (less sunshine) and people are cooped up indoors (as in lockdowns). Of course the first 2 months of COVID were the worst, it’s a new (novel even) virus. But most people have already been exposed, the weather is getting better, and it’s unlikely to continue at the initial rate (unless the morons in the state capitals flatten the curve so much the population doesn’t develop adequate herd immunity before round 2 hits in the fall.)

    3. Linnekin’s position is libertarian, you and the union president take an authoritarian position and want the government to make decisions for you. The NY government made decisions for nursing homes, including one that they must take coronavirus patients even though they weren’t equipped to handle them, and a lot of people died as a result. If the government weren’t involved, many of those people would still be alive, and you can’t sue the nursing home for what the government forced them to do. The FDA previously prohibited anyone from developing test kits for this; thus, getting in the way of the market and harming us.

      Linnekin knows, and readers of this publication should know, that the market will figure out ways to protect us as customers, employees and business owners, provided the government will get out of the way. Then put on your thinking cap and think of ways to help everyone stay safe and still live. There’s suddenly a huge market for better safer ways to do business, and a lot of money to be made helping people do that.

      A lot of people want government to dictate everything. I’d rather keep myself safe until the market develops solutions that are safe, counting on property owners to make the rules for people on their property, and counting on the government to remove trespassers.

      1. Fuck off slaver.

  3. Make it easier to shift distribution between restaurants and grocers.

    But I am saddened by the “for the hot dogs” rhetoric. This isn’t about hot dogs. This is about feeding people.

  4. I just got back from my local farmers market and the local grocer. I am very happy with how things are set up to preserve social distancing and reduce exposure. I certainly miss some things like picking over the stock and the meat counter, but think these are offset by using good practices to avoid exposure. I am not sure how much is government regulation and how much is the decision of the markets, but it is working well.

    1. Pussy. In Georgia restaurants are open for business with dine-in and Georgians have been going about their business for weeks.

      Lefty hysteria narrative is finally wearing off.

      1. and the red states that reopen will have the same death rates as the blue states that don’t, but that will go unnoticed and unmentioned in the media.

  5. When most media is against you, this is a perfect Catch-22 situation, or lose-lose, that Trump is in. Do nothing and he’s “showing a lack of leadership and incompetence in a time of crisis.” Do something and he’s “endangering the lives of working people in order to pursue pure profit.” Only a small number of folks in a few toss-up states need to be convinced and we’ll have President Biden and Vice President Klobuchar in 2021.

  6. “Earlier this week, Pres. Trump issued an executive order mandating that America’s meat processors remain open for business.”

    Uh, bullshit.

  7. “Gov[ernmen]t may force a plant to stay open, but it can’t (nor should it) force scared/sick/dying people to risk their lives for hot dogs.”

    Kind of like feeding a war machine. Are we convinced yet that Trump is Hitler reincarnated! Just saying.

    1. No, we’re convinced you’re a fucking lefty ignoramus.

  8. “What is government’s proper role in reopening the food economy?”

    Was the food economy stifled due to an invading foreign army? Otherwise, I’m not seeing any proper role here. Get out of the way.

    1. Amen!

      Hey, I have an OT post for y’all…
      Government Almighty boondoggle…

      NASA will pay a staggering $146 million for each SLS rocket engine
      The rocket needs four engines and it is expendable.

      1. At least NASA is honest enough to admit it’s a jobs program.

        1. Yup-yup yo, this is true!

          Here’s another one, about political suppression of promising space tech, for political reasons, which is even worse than the inefficient per-state spreading of jobs goodies…

          Below shows we are FINALLY moving in the right direction, at least…

          NASA agrees to work with SpaceX on orbital refueling technology

          Out-take from there is below…

          The rocket program mostly benefited the Alabama space center and was championed by Alabama State Senator Richard Shelby. The potential of in-space fuel storage and transfer threatened the SLS rocket because it would allow NASA to do some exploration missions with smaller and cheaper rockets. As one source explained at the time, “Senator Shelby called NASA and said if he hears one more word about propellant depots he’s going to cancel the Space Technology program.”

        2. From what I’ve read, there’s a growing contingent within NASA that are increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated with SLS. They just accept the reality that Congress holds the purse strings, and legislators aren’t going to forsake those sweet rocket industry votes in their districts.

          1. NASA is more peeved that they can’t get 100 billion to colonize Mars, when Congress and the Fed pop out another trillion bucks in bailouts and stimulus for a bad cold and flu season.

      2. The Senate Launch System is a jobs program to keep shuttle era engineers, technicians, and bureaucrats employed. Through that lens, it’s a very good and effective program.

        The SLS should be scrapped, and commercial launch providers should be used exclusively.

        1. Amen again! Many-many private space fanbois have been saying that (or similar) for a few years now… SLS is like a zombie that can NOT be killed!

          1. The sunk cost fallacy is real.

  9. We have to reopen now, before this happens:

    Alex Jones: “I will eat your ass.”

    1. Alex Jones is a national treasure.

  10. Nope. It’s Karens who call the shots.

  11. Amazing article, Govts cannt do much about crisis we had now.

  12. An outstanding, must-read piece here that does a great job of explaining why Block Yomomma and his loyalists set up General Flynn in a perjury trap:

  13. Jesus stop acting like the whole country is on the coasts. My state didn’t lockdown. Our mayor banned indoor dining but that was lifted yesterday. Red staters are going back to life as usual.

  14. “What Is Government’s Proper Role in Reopening the Food Economy?”

    Not descending into a panic spiral and slamming it shut in the first place?

  15. Well if the fucking government hadn’t shut it down for no reason in the first place, we wouldn’t have to try to correct their mess.

    Seriously, if you are still frightened of this virus I pity you. Meanwhile, the rest of us went about our lives and flipped the bird at overreaching democrat governors.

  16. an outstanding piece of reading. good job guys thumbs up deals draw

  17. Same roll it has in every aspect of life. “to get the fuck out the way”. Which the government will interperate to mean “dictate all aspects of everything”

  18. When I go out to order takeout I notice that a bunch of restaurants have voluntarily closed because they don’t want to be responsible for the deaths of either their employees or their customers. That’s the real problem with free enterprise— that is, free market companies that have decided they’d rather not kill anyone than operate for a temporary profit. Haven’t they read Ayn Rand’s sort story “Atlas Shrugged?” where supergirl gets the trains running no matter who stands in her way? They should. Free market companies who have shut down because they actually give a shit about their employees are the problem— not the solution!

    1. It isn’t enough to just read the books. You also need reading comprehension to understand what they mean.

      1. Sorry Ken, no one wants to get sick to make your life easier. Go back to being angry when folks call out racism, dreaming of taking pensions, and taking insurance from children.

        1. You’re a fucking retard.

          1. Sorry to use your own words against you

      2. You got me, Ken. After spending pages 75-302 twirling my finger [get on with it, Ayn!] my hand got tired and I put it away on my bookshelf. Did I miss anything from pages 303-198,567?

        1. You’re a fucking retard also.
          Fuck off and die; make your family proud and the world a better place.

          1. Sevo, you should try some new words to keep your brain from sclerotizing. It’s really important at your age.

          2. Sevo, are you drunk Ken?

            1. Just stop, Hihn. Just stop.

    2. nope, they voluntarily closed because fewer people are going out to eat and it costs too much to stay open if they’re not running near capacity.

  19. Very nice article, have a great knowledge

  20. “If somebody wants to stay in their house, that’s great. They should be allowed to stay in their house and should not be compelled to leave,” Musk said. “But to say that they cannot leave their house, and they will be arrested if they do, this is fascist, this is not democratic, this is not freedom. Give people back their goddamn freedom.”

    —-Elon Musk

    1. Damn, looks like he’s been killing it calling out the lockdown bullshit. I’d imagine this has a bunch of his cult-of-personality followers heads exploding.

      1. It’s probably happening on both sides of the equation.

        People associate Musk’s businesses with global warming politics, and seeing him take the side of working people everywhere is probably disorienting to those who usually criticize him, thinking he’s on the AGW side of the argument, too.

        The lockdowns seem to be reorienting everyone to their base assumptions, with those who think people should be free to take risks on an individual basis on one side and those who think forcing the rest of us to do what’s in our own best interests is the primary purpose of government on the other. Has such a big issue been so clearly cut in recent memory along libertarian capitalist lines?

        I wish it would stay this way, but sooner or later, the American people get distracted and become divided against each other again.

        Regardless, selling cars to people who want to do their part for climate change isn’t necessarily in conflict with the idea that we should all be free to make choices for ourselves instead of having some fascist tell us we can’t leave our homes and got to work for our own good. I think there are a lot of people who wouldn’t normally say libertarian capitalist things but are being pushed to think in libertarian terms by circumstances.

        . . . especially for people who live in California, Michigan, and New York, the shit that’s spewing out of the mouths of governors and their minions is quite a sight–and out there for everyone to see.

        1. “It’s probably happening on both sides of the equation.”

          I’m sure that’s true. Personally, I’ve never really understood the seemingly innate urge to hero-worship or demonize individuals one has never met. Truth is, everybody’s a mixed bag. Better to criticize/praise individual actions than to paint with a broad brush.

      2. Musk retweeted 2 doctors in Bakersfield who posted stats on YouTube from their medical practice showing the COVID infection rate was much higher (and the death rate much lower) than most people are aware. So YouTube shut them down for spreading COVID “misinformation” — even though it was real data from real doctors.

    2. I think I’m going to txt msg his girlfriend (friend of a friend, you know) and ask her if she really wants to permanently get together with such an overwrought asshole.

      1. And you’re the right overwrought asshole?

  21. “What is government’s proper role in reopening the food economy?”

    Getting out of the way.

    1. Did you say “nationalize the Walmart greeters, make them an arm of the TSA, mandate every store and business have a greeter who checks your ID against the ‘No-Buy’ list of known plague-bearers, then checks your temperature with a rectal thermometer, ensures you’re wearing a mask and wearing it properly by smacking you across the face to see if it flies off, hoses you down with a disinfectant containing both bleach and ammonia, then fits you with an RFID collar that administers a 4,000 volt shock if you come within 6 feet of anybody else wearing a similar collar”?

    2. How is the government like a hungry Michael Moore?

      1. The more it consumes, the more it needs to consume?

  22. “I would protect transgender Americans under the protections that exist for sex,” Amash told Forbes.

    Good to see the Libertarian candidate advocating for changing laws by interpretation… wait… what? Yeap, next Gary Johnson. Have to be nice to that Liberal Twitterverse huh Justin?

    Amash, who defected from the Republican Party before voting for President Trump’s impeachment, said he believes the definition of “sex” can be expanded beyond what it originally meant in codified law. “Sometimes, we have to catch up to the law. In other words, the law is written, and the law will be fairly broad, and the public and the courts are not actually caught up to what is actually in the text,” Amash said.

    Yeah, fuck off Amash.

    1. Oh geez, look… GOP suckup troll comes on and tells us how libertarianism is fine and good so long as it’s confined to what he thinks the law should regulate and what he finds morally objectionable. Fuck off, slaver.

      1. God you say stupid fucking shit.

        Guess what dummy, Amash doesn’t respect the law if he wants to just reinterpret at whim.

        My god man, you are truly pathetic. Glad you went back to your original sock Jeff.

      2. Well said. All serious libertarians — heck, all decent human beings — must accept the scientific fact that Danielle Muscato is 100% woman.

        And to any cisgender females who would be uncomfortable sharing a bathroom, locker room, or showering facility with Danielle just because of her permanent 5 o’clock shadow, I have news for you. You’re hateful bigots. And you’re on the wrong side of history.


        1. Re: Danielle Muscato.

          Had to look that up. {Shrugs} So what? Why are you so concerned about her, bigot?

          1. I’m concerned Danielle might get a dirty look from a bigoted, science-denying cisgender woman next time she uses a public ladies’ room. Because there is still so much transphobia in our society. Since I’m LGBTQ+ (non-binary) I experience it too.

            1. Mmm… like I said I’m not familiar and don’t care what happens in the ladies bathroom. You, OTOH, seem very interested. Did someone hurt you and can you point to where the bad man put his hand?

              1. You literally don’t care if transgender women experience discrimination in the ladies’ room? Or in the locker room? Or in women’s sports? That’s a terrible attitude. You need to check your cisgender privilege.

    2. I would protect them under the 9th Amendment. They have the right to live however they want. And so do we.

  23. When it comes to the food economy, government should remember that workers and consumers call the shots.

    Ah, yes. That “consent of the governed” thing.

  24. Attention! We now have definitive proof that Biden is telling the truth! And it’s so obvious, I can’t believe I didn’t realize it until now.

    Here it is: If Biden had anything problematic in his record, Obama’s people would have found it when they vetted him for VP. Since the current allegation was unknown to prominent Democrats in 2008, that means it couldn’t have happened.



    1. Now do Dear Leader, Trumpian. He’s the great truth teller after all.

    2. Did Obama vet Larry Summers?

  25. “What Is Government’s Proper Role in Reopening the Food Economy?”

    Get out of the way.

    1. Pay up Sevo, you want it open, pay. Accept responsibility. Oh wait, you probably want special protection if you get someone sick.

      1. Fuck off and die, asswipe.

  26. Kasih slow..kasih slow tempo

  27. Government’s proper role is to end all the shutdowns immediately, now that we know the death rate is so low and that mostly the elderly and disabled (who aren’t working anyway) are at risk.

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  31. Trump should have let some of the immigrants out of lock up so they could pick the food for us. Instead it was plowed under, not looking forward to the empty shelves at the store.

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