How food safety regulations do not necessarily lead to greater food safety

From Baylen Linnekin, on

“Nearly 18 months after passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, a landmark piece of legislation that granted new powers and authority to the FDA, the legislation is still mired in congressional debates over how to fund it. If this status update sounds familliar, it’s with good reason. The FSMA found itself in a similar place six months ago and a year ago.

As FSMA implementation treads water, my own latest piece of research on the subject has just been published by the Northeastern University Law Journal. It’s based on a talk I gave as a panelist at the journal’s 2011 food-law conference—held just weeks after the FSMA became law.

In my article, “The Food-Safety Fallacy: More Regulation Doesn’t Necessarily Make Food Safer,” I use ancient and more recent historical examples of flawed rules to rebut the common misconception that more food-safety regulation means safer food. Rather, history shows us that food-safety regulations have often made food (and, consequently, people) less safe.

How can a food-safety regulation make people less safe? There are several ways. You’ll want to read the entire article if you’d like more examples, but I think these three should suffice to illustrate my point.

First, a flawed food-safety regulation can prevent people from gaining access to a healthy food. In 18th century France, the country’s parliament banned consumption of the potato. Among the host of diseases the govenment mistakenly attributed to consumption of the tuber was leprosy. This was particularly problematic because at the time France’s government issued the potato edict, the country was in the midst of a famine.

Potato-loving Francophile Thomas Jefferson would have witnessed the ban firsthand. He later condemned it in strong terms in a famous passage from his Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he lays out his vision of the regulatory authority of government as pertains to religion, food, and medicine:

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. . . . Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our [British-subjugated] souls are now. Thus in France the emetic was once forbidden as a medicine, and the potato as an article of food.

As I note in my article, “It took the efforts of one Frenchman whose life had been saved by the potato to reverse the ban.”

Another way that a food-safety regaultion can make people less safe is when the rule actively promotes the spread of disease. A perfect illustration of this can be found in the USDA’s 90-year meat-inspection scheme—labeled “poke and sniff” by critics and supporters alike—that the agency replaced only in the 1990s.

Poke-and sniff often entailed having an inspector “poke” a piece of meat with a rod and “sniff” the rod to determine, in the inspector’s opinion, whether the meat contained pathogens. This method meant that the hands, eyes, and noses of inspectors were to be literally the front line of the USDA’s food-safety regime.

The problem? “[I]f a piece of meat was in fact tainted but the inspector’s eyes or nose could not detect the contamination after he poked the meat, the inspector would again use his hands or the same rod to poke the next piece of meat, and the next, and so on.”

This approach likely resulted in USDA inspectors transmitting filth from diseased meat to fresh meat on a daily basis. Food may actually have been safer when the USDA failed to regularly inspect some plants for a mere three decades….”



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3 responses to “How food safety regulations do not necessarily lead to greater food safety

  1. The only person that can make you safe is YOU.

    This child like reliance on the state to a “make us safe”. Which BTW is not it’s job has done the exact opposite. The government approval-monopoly, has brought us fluoride enhanced baby water at Walmart. Mercury in our mouths and in our vaccines. (Don’t believe the lie,as mercury is still in many vaccines.) It has brought us, the bought and paid for food pyramid. The government oversight of our food and medicine, has brought us epidemic levels of cancer, autism, obesity, and a plethora of degenerative diseases.

    We need a return to freedom. We don’t need a single new law. All we need is to be left alone to make (hopefully) informed decisions for ourselves and our families.

    If you are an entrepreneur, we need independent, free market organizations that keep and eye on these health dangers and concerns. In the free market the FDA would not exist. It would have long ago been sued out of existence for incompetence and many of it’s members would be in jail if not worse.

    I would love to see many organizations do for food what UL (a private free market laboratory) did for electrical safety. The Weston A Price society comes to mind as do others.

  2. This article comes at a very appropriate time. It seems Canada is determined to follow the U.S. down whatever “food safety” route it takes, no matter how costly or ineffectual. Bill S-11, the “Food Safety for Canadians Act” was introduced in the Senate in June. (Strange that it didn’t go to the House of Commons first.) Here’s a link to some info about it:

  3. Pingback: Move for Food Freedom! | A Mover's Blog

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