Does the government know what’s best for you? Are government officials smarter than you? The answers to those questions should determine whether the government has the right to dictate what food you eat. The more regulations we place on the food industry, the harder it becomes for small producers to compete. Government regulation always favors the big guys, they’re the ones with the money.
Foster Farms Sold Contaminated Meat Under Inspection
March 2013, doctors along the west coast begin seeing patients with cases of food poisoning. For awhile they simply treat them, not thinking much about it. What they don’t realize is that one by one, an outbreak is forming. By June, PulseNet reports an unusual number of salmonella infections on the west coast, primarily California.1
In July another four reports of salmonella come in. Several strains show antibiotic resistance. An investigation reveals that 80% of patients reported eating chicken, 48 of which bought chicken produced by Foster Farms, a California based firm. Foster farms product is found in a patient’s home and tests positive for Salmonella Heidelberg.1
After investigating Foster Farms, the USDA sends a letter. It states that the positive samples coupled with the illnesses suggest that the sanitary conditions at the facility could pose a serious ongoing threat to public health. Foster Farms promises to increase food safety controls.2
Two days later, Consumer Reports announced that it had found a dangerous strain of salmonella in foster farms chicken it bought in July. Consumer Reports called on Foster Farms and the retail outlets that sell Foster Farms chicken to recall the contaminated chicken. No recall was made by foster farms. Kroger and Costco issue their own recalls. The outbreak now totals 338 individuals in 20 states.1
Despite Foster Farm’s promise to food safety, their plant in Livingston, CA is cited 154 times between October 2013 and March 2014. The plant is only closed once by the USDA due to “an infestation of live cockroaches” and “egregious insanitary conditions.” 2
In early 2014 the outbreak was thought to be over, but in March, the CDC added another 51 persons to the list of infected individuals, bringing the total to 481 across 25 states.1 The numbers continue to rise, and the CDC announced in May that the outbreak was still ongoing. Foster farms replied that they we’re committed to “leadership in food safety”
Finally, on July 3, 2014 Foster Farms recalls an “undetermined amount” of chicken products produced between March 7 through March 13.1, 2 The announcement was made on the afternoon before a holiday weekend and fourteen months after the initial outbreak was detected.
On July 31, 2014, the CDC announced that the outbreak was over. A total of 634 people were infected across 29 states and Puerto Rico. 38% of the people affected had to be hospitalized.1 Luckily, no deaths were reported.
The Weakness in Government Regulation
The Foster Farms outbreak was not an isolated incident. Every year there are outbreaks linked to a food company or restaurant. The public has become used to it. They expect it. But should they?
Whenever a food recall takes place or some animal abuse is exposed, the public decides that the government should take care of it. We can’t be bothered. We have much more important things to worry about. Like what the Kardashians are up to. Let the government take care of industry problems. They should make those business behave themselves.
The government has only one real way to control business, regulation. They create regulations, then send out inspectors and other government agents to enforce these regulations. I agree that there is a need for some government regulation, but in many cases, we have too much. I agree, it’s important that we make sure companies do not dump dangerous chemicals and waste into the environment. Unfortunately, many regulations that work for big companies, do not work for small ones.
The reason for this is that many of the officials that run government agencies used to work for the large companies they regulate. This is necessary to a point. The government needs regulators who know the industry they are regulating. However, this can also harbor conflicts of interest. These regulators only know big business, they’ve never worked for a small company or a small farm. This leads to regulations written to serve the big business model. Little guys are never considered.
Many administrations clam to be for small business. That small business is the backbone of our country. But in reality, they don’t understand small business. How many government officials come from small businesses? Not many.
Food Inspection Saved the Big Meat Packers
Food inspection did not exist until the the meat packing industry began consolidating into huge processing plants. These huge processing plants were dirty and dangerous. The industry was exposed in Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle. He described the a long list of despicable practices: the slaughter of diseased animals, using borax or glycerine to remove the smell of spoiled meat, workers urinating and defecating on the kill floor and many others.
The public became outraged and took their business elsewhere. They went back to the small butcher shops processed animals in small batches which sold directly to the customer. Every customer could see how clean the butcher was. If he wasn’t, they could go someplace else. These butchers were customer inspected. No government inspection was necessary. This meant a huge decline in revenue for the big meat packers.
The official story is that Teddy Roosevelt stood up to the big meat packers and controlled them with government inspection. The meat packers fought back, but ultimately lost. Government inspection became law. The public bought in because they assumed that the government knew what they were doing.
But what would have happened if Roosevelt had decided to follow the constitution and do nothing? After all, the public was already implementing their own solution. The answer is that many of these meat packers would have gone out of business. The remainders would have come up with some sort of industry certification, much like Underwriters Laboratory. They may have even had to, wait for it, open up their meat packing plants so that the public could come and see how clean they were.
The Government does not have a good track record.
Expecting the government to fix everything that’s wrong with the world is not realistic. Imposing top down solutions is tricky business. They frequently fail. The projects, prohibition, the war on drugs. None of these top down solutions can be called successes.
The Teapot Dome scandal shows that people in positions of power can be bribed by large corporations to give them favorable treatment.
Watergate brought down the Nixon Administration.
Fen-Phen, touted as a diet miracle, was approved by the FDA then subsequently unapprooved when it was found to cause heart disease and high blood pressure. Oops.
Olestra was heralded as a new breakthrough to replace fat, calories, and cholesterol. The FDA approved olestra for use as a replacement for fats and oils, claiming that such use “meets the safety standard for food additives, reasonable certainty of no harm”. Olestra fell out of favor when it began causing abdominal cramping and anal leakage. It is now mostly used as a base for deck stains and a lubricant for small power tools. However, Olestra is still available as a food additive in a certain “light” foods. Industrial chemicals, yum.
OSHA was created to ensure safe work environments, yet workers get hurt on a regular basis at meat packing plants.4
Federal inspection was created to clean up the meat processing industry and eliminate food borne illness. Yet foster farms was permitted to continue selling contaminated and adulterated meat for months.
These are just a few examples. The list could fill this entire article. These are symptoms of a bigger problem.
Business is Smarter than Government
The government is not good at regulating business. Businessmen are smarter than government workers. Any time a government agency forces some regulation on an industry, the businesses find a way around it.
They use their money to curry favors from the regulating agency. They change their operations slightly to take advantage of a loophole. Or if all else fails, they’ll move their operations to somewhere less restrictive.
The public likes to think that the government is there to keep big business in line. To break up monopolies. Just look at the breakup of standard oil. Rockefeller had a monopoly on the oil business. The government came in and broke up his monopoly. That showed him, right?
Not really. The breakup of Standard Oil made Rockefeller even richer. He still owned an equal percentage of all these new companies. Now that there were all separate, each one’s value increased, making Rockefeller the richest man in the world. Take that Rockefeller! All the way to the bank.
Government Regulation is not Consistent
Back when I was a vendor at the Ferguson Farmer’s Market, I had a conversation with another vendor who sold dog treats. She lamented the fact that Ferguson, being in the county of St Louis, could not allow dogs at the market. The county health department forbade it. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps dogs are filthy creatures who spread disease. More likely is that someone at the health department doesn’t like dogs. How do I know?
In the city of St Louis they have a separate health department, the City Health Department. As far as the City Health Department is concerned, dogs at farmer’s markets are fine. You could hold a dog show in front of the food booths, no problem. So what’s the deal? Are dogs dirty or not?
This is the kind of nonsense local farmers and small businesses have to deal with. Rules that don’t make sense. Inspectors who interpret them differently. One month everything is fine, the next month you’re in violation. Why? Everything is the same. Well, it could simply be that your inspector hasn’t been writing enough infractions lately. His boss mentioned it, so he writes you up to look like he’s doing his job. You didn’t do anything, his boss did.
What Can We do?
The first thing you should do is opt-out of the industrial system whenever possible. The more money that goes to local food producers, the more innovation we will see. I believe that customer inspected trumps government inspected. But what about customers who don’t want to inspect the farm they are buying from? Well, the internet has already come up with a solution to that.
Companies like eBay, Uber, and AirBNB have a rating system for their users. You as a customer don’t know the person you’re buying or renting from. You’ve never met them before. How can you possibly know if someone 500 miles away is trustworthy? Will they take your money and run?
That’s where the rating system comes in. It says they have 4.5 stars. Sounds good. If they had one star, you probably wouldn’t buy from them. This system works, but not thanks to the government. These systems are self-imposed. They we’re innovations born out of necessity. Born out of small companies, on an internet with no regulations. Imagine if the founders of google had to build a million dollar server farm before they could release their product? We’d probably still be using Alta-Vista.
The assumption that farmers might be dirty, assumes that bureaucrats are never dirty. Do you seriously believe that all bureaucrats are honest? That is simply ridiculous. Just ask any republican whether the Clintons are honest. Ask any democrat whether the Bush’s are honest. Clearly bureaucrats are not clean.
Yet we assume that these same bureaucrats will have our best interests in mind when it comes to our food. Even when big industry shows up with their campaign contributions and lavish steak dinners. They’re still honest right? I don’t want to think about it. What’s on TV?
- Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser, 2012