Commentary

Food Fight? Actually, Regulation is the Problem

The August recall of 25 million pounds of ground beef because of suspected E. coli contamination has rattled consumers and sparked a national debate about whether government food-safety inspection practices are adequate.

While many believe this to be a textbook case for more aggressive government regulation, a little investigation finds just the opposite.

According to the General Accounting Office, current U.S. Department of Agriculture food inspection practice “suffers from overlapping and duplicative inspections, poor coordination, inefficient allocation of resources, and outdated inspection procedures.”

How outdated are the practices? USDA inspections concentrate on a “scratch and sniff” examination of beef - which most health authorities consider no more effective than shaking a voodoo rattle at the product and declaring it free of “demon germs.” That’s because bacteria are seldom that easy to detect. Oftentimes, only a full laboratory analysis can detect a virulent strain of E. coli or other dangerous pathogens. Less primitive USDA practices are unlikely to help. “There’s been a cry for more inspectors and testing, but neither is a magic bullet,” notes Michael Osterholm, chief of the Minnesota Department of Health’s Acute Disease Epidemiology Section. “Routine testing of the product will not provide us with a reliable way to detect every single episode of contamination. It’s like sticking your hand in one part of the haystack and saying the whole stack is free of needles.”

So what are we to do? First, we must use modern technology to address the problem of food contamination. But the very federal government that some see as the solution is blocking the use of the one technology that has the greatest potential for saving lives.

Irradiation, which is very similar to giving food an X-ray, destroys any bacteria or pathogens without rendering the food radioactive or exposing it to radioactive substances. Even though irradiation is inexpensive and widely used abroad - and even though virtually every national and international professional health and medical association has endorsed the practice as the equivalent of milk pasteurization and campaigned vigorously for its use - the Food and Drug Administration steadfastly refuses to legalize irradiation of beef.

Threats of boycotts and violence from the Luddite-left against companies that irradiate food (irradiation has been approved for poultry, fruit, vegetables and spices) have blocked its use in the marketplace and intimidated public health officials who would otherwise expedite its use. A suspicious public resisted milk pasteurization for 30 years, but such anti-science know-nothingism is now an expensive luxury that endangers public health.

Second, we need to get government out of the food inspection business. Private food quality assurance programs have proven far more thorough, effective and technically advanced than the archaic and scientifically dubious practices of the federal government.

Consider their track record in the kosher food industry. Jewish dietary standards call for far more rigorous food preparation standards than are required for non-kosher products, and the policing of those standards is an entirely private, unregulated matter. Approximately 130 private organizations certify kosher food for 8,100 companies producing 36 million kosher products each year. Their record is sterling. Moreover, the competition between certification firms is fierce and has resulted in a “ratcheting up” of preparation practices. Similar competition exists in the certification of Islamic food products.

There’s no reason to think that such private food quality systems wouldn’t work for the rest of the food industry if only the federal government would get out of the way.

A growing number of food companies are waking up to the fact that USDA food inspection is next to worthless and are taking matters into their own hands.

For instance, the New York Times reports that Burger King - Hudson Foods’ major ground beef customer - required Hudson to follow an inspection regimen for fast-food burgers that was far more rigorous and demanding than required by federal law. Other companies have instituted similar practices to ensure food quality.

If the USDA were a private company, it would have been driven out of business by any one of the last several food contamination outbreaks. If Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman were that company’s CEO, he might well be in jail. Why isn’t the USDA held accountable for its repeated failures to detect contamination? A few months ago, the department purchased contaminated strawberries for Michigan’s school lunch program. Had any private company done that, it would be facing crippling criminal and civil penalties, even extinction. Private companies that make serious mistakes go bankrupt; government agencies that make serious mistakes get to call for bigger budgets and more regulatory power. It’s a bizarre world.

And what’s more bizarre is that the one technology - food irradiation - that could prevent loss of life due to food contamination is held hostage by a federal bureaucracy more interested in political posturing than in ensuring safety, and by a “consumer movement” threatening boycotts and violence against any company that dares use the practice.

Clearly, it’s time to take government and politics out of food safety.

Markets, not regulations, are the answer.

Jerry Taylor is the Director of Natural Resources Studies at the Cato Institute.