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May. 21st, 2007

Fear of Eating

These are anxious days at the lunch table. For all you know, there may be E. coli on your spinach, salmonella in your peanut butter and melamine in your pet’s food and, because it was in the feed, in your chicken sandwich.

Who’s responsible for the new fear of eating? Some blame globalization; some blame food-producing corporations; some blame the Bush administration. But I blame Milton Friedman.

Why is regulation always touted as the solution for our food ills?

If a company has to be forced to prevent contamination and remove contaminated items...what does that say about the company? Why should I buy food from such a company?

You can regulate Conagra to death, but I'm no longer going to buy from companies that aren't accountable to their customers.

The thing Milton Friedman was wrong about was thinking that just because it's in the self-interest of big companies to avoid bad publicity, they they are in the best position to make and sell safe food. They aren't- obviously they have become too big to really control their supply lines.

Furthermore, since consumers are typically ignorant about food, they know they can get away with cutting corners. Because of the nature of food poisoning, it's difficult to trace and assign blame, so the incentive actually is less strong than it would seem, especially with pathogens like Listeria that take awhile to cause symptoms. Also, cheap methods of eradicating pathogens often do not truly serve the consumer's interests because they can impair taste and allow agricultural practices most consumers would find abominable.

I think actually that advocates of local and small producers should oppose more stringent regulations. If big ag companies are forced to act like they care, then it will reduce the incentive for consumers to seek alternative products.



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