FDA Commissioner: No One 'Envisioned' the Consequences of New Sesame Seed Labeling Rule

No one could have considered this possibility, except perhaps the many food-processing facilities that immediately did exactly that.


One of the better recent examples of how government officials do a poor job of anticipating the consequences of their actions occurred after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated warning labels for products containing sesame seeds.

The unexpected result: Suddenly everything seems to contain sesame.

In case you missed it at the time, here's what happened: In an attempt to aid those with allergies to sesame seeds, the FDA added the ingredient to a longstanding list of items—including eggs, milk, and shellfish—whose presence must be noted on the packaging of food products and at restaurants. In response, food producers started adding sesame to products that previously contained none.

The food producers were simply doing what made economic sense. The FDA's fines for not disclosing the inclusion of sesame are steep, and it's much cheaper to add a few seeds to everything than to face potential penalties for accidental mixing. "Rather than worry about how to prevent potential cross-contamination in products that don't contain sesame, some restaurants and food makers—including Olive Garden, Chick-fil-A, and Wendy's—are simply adding sesame to their products. That way they can list it as an ingredient and not worry about being faulted for accidental contamination," Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote last year.

The result? Fewer sesame seed–free products are now available for people who are allergic.

But the cherry on top of this sundae of government failure—or perhaps the sesame seed atop the FDA's bun of bureaucratic bungling—was provided this week by none other than the agency's own chief.

"Some manufacturers are intentionally adding sesame to products that previously did not contain sesame and are labeling the products to indicate its presence," acknowledged FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf in a statement. Califf went on to say that the FDA's goal, of course, was to help individuals with sesame allergies "feel more confident" about their choices.

"I don't think anyone envisioned there being a decrease in the availability of products that are safe choices for sesame-allergic consumers," he concluded.

Yes, no one could have possibly envisioned this outcome—except, perhaps, for the many food processing facilities that immediately responded to the FDA's new rules by doing exactly this.

What Califf means, of course, is that no one within the FDA considered this possibility. That's a telling statement. It indicates that the FDA likely didn't do a good job of investigating how the businesses affected by its rules would respond to the placement of sesame on the federal allergens list. It also suggests that the FDA's staff lacked the ability to see beyond the good intentions—helping allergy sufferers—of the policy to interrogate how such a rule might be implemented in the real world.

There is a recurring idea that advancements in technology and data processing can allow governments to solve the so-called knowledge problem—Friedrich A. Hayek's observation that central planning will always fail because government officials cannot aggregate all the necessary information to make better decisions than the decentralized ones made by individuals acting via markets.

But Califf's remarks show just how difficult solving that problem is. The FDA has virtually unlimited access to public health data and can easily acquire whatever information it might need to make any decision. And yet no one at the agency was able to predict how a regulation of a tiny seed would have huge unintended consequences.