Eli Lehrer November 30th, 2010 at 6:19 pm 12 Comments
A new food safety bill, which just passed the Senate and is now headed for a House-Senate Congress, will probably end up being the biggest piece of legislation to come out of the lame duck session of Congress. Although well intentioned (who, after all, doesn’t want safe food?) the bill deserves a good deal of skepticism. In fact, there are good reasons for both “economy first” conservatives and “safety first” liberals to dislike it.
The conservative case against the bill, the one favored by most people who voted against it, seems pretty obvious: the bill doesn’t solve any problems. While it’s easy to agree that it shouldn’t be legal to sell food likely to make people sick, there’s little evidence of a systemic food crisis problem in the United States. True, a spate of heavily publicized food safety problems—tainted peanut butter, eggs, and meat—show that it’s not perfect but none of the new powers and authorities granted to the government seem certain to stop the specific problems that drew lots of publicity. With the exception of a few marginal tweaks, a slightly broader power to do recalls, the bill basically just asks the government to do more of the same regulatory oversight activities that failed to prevent the problems the country has already experienced. This could possibly prevent some problems but there’s no hard evidence that it will. In a healthy economy, maybe such caution could make sense. Right now, it may not. Given that most manufacturing in the United States relates to grocery store items, furthermore, the financial and time cost of new regulation could end up being a job-destroying regulatory hurdle for an economy still in recovery.
On the other hand, those most interested in food safety also should have cause for caution for at least two reasons. First, thanks to organic farmers and their supporters on the political left, small-scale producers are exempted from nearly all new regulations and some old ones to boot. There’s a balance to be struck here—the FDA shouldn’t inspect every family that makes jam in its kitchen and sells it at the roadside—but smaller producers may really bear more careful watching than large ones. Big companies have brand reputations to defend and tons of assets that trial lawyers would love to go after. Small ones have none of these natural incentives. Under the bill, small (under $500,000) can include some decent sized producers; they’ll get left out. Second, the bill leaves out an important part of the food safety equation: preparation. Food poisoning introduced outside of manufacturing plants, after all, sickens far more people than problems happening inside of them. Since many Americans eat out much more than they cook, this is a big potential problem. Local health departments of wildly uneven quality largely oversee food preparation. If one’s only goal was maximum food safety, additional standards on the preparation end–national standards for big chain restaurants, for example–probably would have done more to improve safety than the existing bill. (This isn’t to say that Congress should impose such standards; it shouldn’t; but a true “safety first” position suggests that it should.)
In the end, the new food safety bill, indeed, may provide a fitting epitaph for the most regulation happy Congress in history: much of it appears to be a solution in search of a problem.