Sunday, October 15, 2006

Michael Pollan on Food Regulation

Michael Pollan (author of the excellent The Omnivore's Dilemma) has an interesting article analyzing the recent problem with E.coli in spinach, and why the government's regulatory response will probably be exactly the wrong solution. That is, industrial food production is the reason why a lot of food poisoning arises in the first place, but the regulations that supposedly ensure food safety actually favor large industrial producers:
Yet perhaps the gravest threat now to local food economies — to the farmer selling me my spinach, to the rancher who sells me my grass-fed beef — is, of all things, the government’s own well-intentioned efforts to clean up the industrial food supply. Already, hundreds of regional meat-processing plants — the ones that local meat producers depend on — are closing because they can’t afford to comply with the regulatory requirements the U.S.D.A. rightly imposes on giant slaughterhouses that process 400 head of cattle an hour. The industry insists that all regulations be “scale neutral,” so if the U.S.D.A. demands that huge plants have, say, a bathroom, a shower and an office for the exclusive use of its inspectors, then a small processing plant that slaughters local farmers’ livestock will have to install these facilities, too. This is one of the principal reasons that meat at the farmers’ market is more expensive than meat at the supermarket: farmers are seldom allowed to process their own meat, and small processing plants have become very expensive to operate, when the U.S.D.A. is willing to let them operate at all. From the U.S.D.A.’s perspective, it is much more efficient to put their inspectors in a plant where they can inspect 400 cows an hour rather than in a local plant where they can inspect maybe one.

So what happens to the spinach grower at my farmers’ market when the F.D.A. starts demanding a Haccp plan — daily testing of the irrigation water, say, or some newfangled veggie-irradiation technology? When we start requiring that all farms be federally inspected? Heavy burdens of regulation always fall heaviest on the smallest operations and invariably wind up benefiting the biggest players in an industry, the ones who can spread the costs over a larger output of goods. A result is that regulating food safety tends to accelerate the sort of industrialization that made food safety a problem in the first place.
Once again George Stigler's economic theory of regulation seems to predict the regulatory outcomes.


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