Monday, November 26, 2007

You're Eating That? Yes. Yes I am.

The lead editorial of today's New York Times asks readers, You're Eating That? Apparently it was a slow news day. Slow enough that the Times editorial page felt it was worth while to drub up more unnecessary scares about the food we eat. According to the Times, only 66% of American consumers are confident that the food they eat is safe. But what I want to know is if that worried 34% is the same group that still thinks 9-11 was an inside job. A poll may tell us that X number of people believe something, but that doesn't make it true. Of course, given the tone of the editorial it seems as though the Times would rather recount anecdotes then actually look to any empirical data about food safety.

If they actually looked to real data, they would have to tell us that the food we eat is pretty damn safe. I don't have numbers in front of me, but common sense tells most of us we know- or know of far more people who were killed in auto accidents than people who were hospitalized from the consumption of some sort of contaminated food. The fact is that the vast majority of food we eat is perfectly safe. Raw meat is loaded with bacteria because, well, it's raw meat. The media (and the public) freak out over e.coli only because we have regulations in place that demand meat containing e.coli be recalled. Salmonella is just as dangerous as e.coli, yet regulations allows chicken containing salmonella to be sold- some studies indicate that anywhere from 40-80% of chicken on store shelves contains salmonella. There's no outcry over salmonella because it would be near impossible to eliminate and therefore regulations reflect this reality. All the while, the truth is that any pathogen can be dealt with through proper handling and cooking to the proper internal temperatures.

But wait, the Times editorial page isn't done yet. They even have solutions!

The F.D.A. needs to follow through on promises to determine which companies abroad are more trustworthy and which require closer scrutiny. One quick solution would be to immediately require accreditation of private laboratories through the International Standards Organization. The best labs would welcome that certification.

The government should also require importers to announce which laboratory they will use in advance so that there can be no switching later. And some of the additional money from Congress should go to updating the F.D.A.’s own equipment for random or follow-up testing and to develop a system to more efficiently track data about imports, companies and their past performance.

This little passage just highlights the problem with big government today and the problem with the notion that government can solve every problem. Clearly, the Times doesn't have any clue what they're talking about, yet they somehow have the idea that existing laboratory certification procedures aren't good enough- rather, we need international standards. I highly doubt any of the editorial page writers took the time to investigate what goes into state-by-state laboratory accreditation. Yet they have no problem brazenly announcing that new and different standards are needed.

What really gets me is the same people who demand stricter regulation tend to be the same people who decry corporate power. But regulation is precisely what concentrates corporate power. For instance, the Times editorial page has called for stricter standards for food producers and stricter standards for laboratories. Regulatory compliance costs money- lots of money- and the more regulated an industry is, the more likely it is that the smaller companies will not have the resources to keep up with the regulations. More regulation of the sort the Times calls for would mean the end of smaller food producers and the end of smaller laboratories, meaning that larger and larger market shares would flow to the big companies. Additionally, when it comes to regulation, big companies have the money and resources to effect what the regulations are and how they are to be executed. Therefore, the scenario tends to be that regulation coincides with the interests of large companies and ends up keeping smaller competitors and innovators off the market.

Now, I'm just talking about general trends, but facts are facts, and regulatory compliance costs money. I'm not the sort of libertarian who would end all regulation, but I do think the regulatory burden we currently have could be drastically reduced - and unlike the Times, I'd like the regulations that are necessary to reflect reality. Not panic.

For matters of full disclosure, the writer is a member of the Connecticut Environmental Laboratory Advisory Committee


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