Sunday, November 29, 2009

What is the Best Paradigm for Guaranteeing Safe Foods?

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An effective talking point of the last election was that the evil Bush Administration had turned the American food supply into poison, and that a new administration would save us with bigger government and tighter regulation.

I admit, I was so focused on the slow food revolution that took place during the Bush years to notice how bad our food supply had become. Slow Foods is the idea that food should be grown locally. It includes Community Supported Argriculture (CSAs) and Farmers Markets.

For those unaccustomed to thinking, Slow Foods is the antithesis of food regulation. Slow foods is about taking what comes naturally. Regulation is about making things regular.

It is not a conincidence that there was a surge in small organic farms during an administration that was loosening some of the regulations that made such farms untenable in previous decades.

Anyway, since the new President's Food Safety Workgroup was such an important thing in our exciting changed world, I thought should check out their newly revamped FoodSafety.gov to see how things were going.

The site provides a slick presentation of the same basic food preparation and safety info found on most food safety sites ... with a big emphasis on the role that your government plays in food safety.

The site had the script for the food recall alert that I added to this post.

I scanned through the list to find out what's cooking in food safety localley. I found a food recall with a really bizarre twist. Here is the gist of the recall:

Thrive Foods, a Lindon, Utah, establishment, is recalling approximately 3,790 pounds of assorted [Freeze Dried] meat and poultry products because they were produced without the benefit of federal inspection.

The first thing that struck me about this article was that they were recalling Freeze-Dried food. This made me wonder how often freeze-dried food is the vector for food poisoning.

The other thing that struck me about the food recall was that this food appears to have been meant for the food-preparedness community. This community has been hopping of late as people who fear hyper inflation stock up on survival supplies. (The market for this food is people who are not pleased with the administration.)

The recall emphasized that the USDA had not determined that the food was bad. The reason for the recall is that the food did not "benefit from government inspection."

I doubt the survivalists who bought this food think that any food benefits from government inspection. People who see the government as the enemy are unlike to see benefits in government control of the inspection process.

Now, I actually am a big believer in inspection and quality control processes. I would even buy the idea that a company should recall a product simply for lack of quality control. The question in my mind is if the inspection should be done by the government or third party.

In my readings, I've come across quite a few horror stories of corrupt government inspectors in 3rd world countries. Government controlled food inspection often takes on political tones as inspectors have the ability to reward friends with lenient inspections and enemies with hypercritical inspections.

In many cases, it is the food inspector that destroys the livelihood of small independent farms in favor of the corporate behemoths that can adapt the inspection process into their business cycle.

Homogenized control of the inspection process invariably favors large conglomerates like Walmart with the power to control and influence the inspection process. Federally run inspection system tends to create a homogenous food supply.

In The Forgotten Man, Amity Shales recounts the case Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States. In this case, inspectors of the NRA objected to the bizarre kosher processing of chickens done by a the small Jewish owned firm. Surprisingly, the Supreme Court of the FDR era ruled in favor of the small kosher poultry shop.

The case shows how the intolerance of government inspectors to different food processing traditions.

So, I think that the better form of food inspection is one where there are many different inspectors, and the inspectors (along with the food producers) are liable for their food.

The quality control in freeze-dried market is different from fresh fruits, which is different from peanut butter, which is different from raw meat. The Walmart way is different from the Slow Foods way.

There needs to be quality control. I've thought the best way to go about the process is for the government to set minimum standards. Private companies could encapsulate and extend those standards.

This new hyper-partisan food safety system, where the regulators award political friends and attack political enemies, is, in my humble opinion, the worst possible direction for food safety.

3 comments:

Reach Upward said...

The government and its media allies love to make a big deal out of targeted food safety cases. No matter the causes, these cases are always fodder for more government intervention. Always more; never less.

The incentives in the system always need to be scrutinized. You may recall the peanut product salmonella outbreak of late last year and early this year. The offending company passed both government and private inspections, despite horrid conditions at some facilities. It also repeatedly shipped product even after lab tests showed problems.

In this case, the private and public regulatory practices failed to prevent harm to customers. Only after the public became broadly aware of the problem were serious corrective actions undertaken.

This case is curious, because it would be assumed that Kellogg's, one of the company's biggest customers, would have adequate incentive to perform thorough inspections. Like government inspectors, however, Kellogg's inspectors assumed clean processes and were quite lax in their duties.

Interestingly, the company's owner sat on the USDA's Peanut Standards Board.

What we see here is how the combined power of big government and big business failed to achieve the mythical promise of food supply safety.

y-intercept said...

Reach,

You are completely correct in noting that it was the press (and not the inspectors) who drove the peanut recall.

Of course, we can't really depend on the press driving the issue. The press only drives an issue if there is an angle to report. The partisan press usually only drives issues when that angle involves rewarding friends or punishing enemies.

The "alert system" has promise. If you Google "Thrive Foods"; you will find hundreds of web sites (eager for free content) repeating the alert.

The alert system is a bit scary and this alert is pretty much the only thing you find on Thrive Foods ... which means it can completely destroy a company alerted on.

If this alert was just government muscle flexing (as the wording of the alert indicates); then the system is systematically being deminished in a "boy crying wolf" fault.

As for the peanut affair ... progessives say the system failed because it was inspectors during the Bush Administration who let the contaminated food through.

Of course, if it was a partisan press driving the issue, and the public was depending on the desire of the partisan press to associate the administration with nausea to get important health info, then we have a food alert system that only really works when an enemy of the press is in office.

I hold little confidence in big government, big business or big media.

In this regards, I think the liability system is really the best thing for keeping people safe as it forces business to pay the cost for their actions.

The liability system is a bit faulty in and of itself as class action suits seem to combine many of the worse elements of big government, big business and big press in a single package.

In the long run, I prefer small business, small government, small media and reasonable law.

Reach Upward said...

I concur with your small, small, small, and reasonable leanings.