Thursday, August 25, 2011

Liberty and food

When I met John, he was a monarchist. Now, he's a libertarian. And his views are more internally consistent than most people's. He just runs things by a basic standard: Government's role is to preserve the rights of its citizens. So a law may be made to prevent citizens from infringing on one another's rights, but a law may not be made to protect citizens from themselves. He believes the government should only ban what is harmful to others, not what is stupid, self-destructive, or sinful. That's the role of society, churches, and the individual conscience.

I talk about his political ideas because mine are still a bit of a muddle. I lay no claim to being internally consistent. And yet I think libertarian ideas are exactly what we need in one area: the food industry.

We keep hearing about food contamination. If it isn't e. coli on the spinach, it's salmonella in the peanut butter or bug parts in the baby formula. So it would be easy to say, "What we need is more government oversight."

The thing is, we have a ton of government oversight. It would just be impossible for them to test every single batch of every single product in the whole country, and without that, there is no way to be sure our food is not contaminated. Food processing plants are required to follow a long list of standards, but clearly this has not been enough to prevent contamination.

Meanwhile, in some ways we have way too much government oversight. I'm talking about FDA raids on small farms where they throw away huge quantities of cheese or raw milk, even though there is no contamination found or any report of sickness. Here in my state, it is illegal to buy raw milk at all.

You could argue all you want about the health benefits or the health risks of raw milk. But it wouldn't it be simpler to run it by John's standard? "The government's role is not to protect me from myself. If I want to risk my life or health, that's my business." The government does have a role, even according the most passionate libertarian, to prevent fraud or the adulteration of food. Raw milk must be labeled raw milk. Would it kill the FDA to slap a label on it saying, "This milk is unpasteurized and has not been tested or approved by the FDA. It may cause illness" and then let people buy it if they still wanted to?

Meanwhile, full disclosure is not required for foods the FDA approves. There is no label for genetically-modified foods. We have no way of knowing if foods are genetically modified or not. That's because the FDA is convinced they are safe, so we shouldn't need to know. But what if we want to know? Shouldn't we be provided with the information we need to make the food choices that we want to make?

Milk is also not labeled when it contains growth hormone. Currently, milk that doesn't contain it is usually labeled. But some people think that label shouldn't be allowed. Why? Some people might pick the hormone-free milk, and since we know that the hormones aren't harmful, it will harm the business of those who use the hormones without making the consumer any safer. In other words, we consumers don't know what we're talking about, so giving us more information will cause us to make choices for things that we think are better, while damaging the business of other products that are just as good.

Personally, I think we should be able to choose food with or without any ingredients we want, whether or not they are believed to be harmful. And yes, if enough people insist on GMO-free food, that will hurt the GMO business. I think that's okay. Perhaps the companies will switch to non-GMO products. That's called the market adjusting to demand. That's a good thing. I just fail to understand what would be so terrible about GMO's going out of style ... except, perhaps, for the companies that create them. But I don't think it's fair to deny millions of people a free choice just so that one company can succeed artificially.

Meanwhile, there's the issue of big agricultural companies vs. the small farm. The regulations are the same for all (more or less). But the big companies have an easier time following them. There are laws dictating the dimensions of hen houses and the design of meat packing plants, which are easy to follow if you're building a whole new place from scratch, but hard if you have a little money to start off with and would like to use your old chicken coop or pack the meat in your kitchen. This is something of a simplification. But the results are clear if you compare prices: very often it is more expensive to buy from your local small farmer than from Wal-Mart.

Regulations that favor small farmers -- or fewer regulations altogether, which would amount to the same thing -- would help a lot. Small farmers could more easily compete with big farmers. And that benefits everyone. When a single cow is contaminated with e. coli in a meat plant, its meat may end up mixed with the meat from hundreds of other cows. That's why it happens, every time there is a report of a recall, that this mean might be in dozens of states. Worse still, they don't recall "Johnson Farms Beef," they recall beef produced by some company you've never heard of, which may be labeled as Wal-Mart brand, Giant brand, or what-have-you. This is handy for the big farmers. You don't hear about a recall on the news and think, "Gee, I'm not going to buy that brand of meat anymore. I'll buy the competing brand." You would if you could, but meat is distributed under so many different labels that you have no idea which meat is produced by the recalled company and which isn't. Perhaps it all is.

With small farms and big farms competing on an even field, and each being required to be completely honest in its marketing, you would be able to choose between meat produced in Oklahoma and packed in Chicago and meat that you saw running around last month while you were on your way to work. Each would be labeled with where it came from and what company produced it. Ideally, you'd have a list of what the animal was given to eat and what conditions it lived in -- or at least be able to find out by going to the farm's website. Is that really so much to ask?

A blogger I read recently suggested eggs be packaged, not with "free range," "cage free," or "vegetarian diet," but with a picture of the henhouse where the chickens live. You could see if they're stacked in closely-packed cages with their beaks cut off, or roaming in a pleasant poultry yard and nesting in a cozy henhouse for the night. I think the battery method of chicken farming would quickly go out of business ... which is why they don't advertise their eggs that way.

Subsidies are another issue, one I don't completely understand. Basically, in an uncontrolled market, food prices sometimes fluctuate wildly based on the supply available. If the price of wheat, say, gets too high, people can't make bread. But if it gets too low, it bankrupts the farmers. So nowadays the government pays farmers for growing certain products. Corn farmers' profit, in particular, comes mainly from subsidies. As a result, we grow way more corn than we could ever need. It costs basically nothing -- because the government is paying farmers for every acre of corn they grow. We pay a small price -- much lower than what it costs the farmer to grow it -- and the government handles the rest so that farmers can survive and turn a profit.

The problem here is that we now have a huge excess of corn. Farmers in the Midwest stopped growing other things and just grew corn. So now we have to find something to do with all that corn -- make corn syrup, corn starch, corn oil, ethanol, and so forth. And that's what we do. But a lot of these foods aren't that healthy. As a result, foods like corn chips fried in corn oil and soda flavored with corn syrup are really cheap, while vegetables like tomatoes and lettuce are expensive because they have to be shipped in from California or Mexico.

I am not sure what the solution here is. Stopping the subsidies suddenly would ruin farmers across the country -- not something I would like to do! And some subsidies may be necessary to prevent bankruptcy in time of drought and things like that. But I think it's time to reassess what subsidies we really need. If more of that money could stay in our pockets (because it does come from our taxes, you know!), we could afford healthier food.

Unfortunately, the power to make these decisions is not in my hands. It's in the hands of the government, which listens to the people who are talking to it. Mostly, people who talk to the government about farming are the well-paid lobbyists of large agricultural conglomerates. It's not so likely to be you or me, and when we do speak up, we aren't heard quite as well without the deep pockets the big companies have. On the other hand, there are more of us. So it is possible that we could get our voices heard, too.

I don't have a ten-step plan for how to go about that. But I do have a few ideas:

1. Pay attention to what food-related and farm-related bills are going through Congress and your state legislature. Call your legislator and tell him what you think!

2. Find out what different elected officials think about these issues. Take it into account when you go to the polls each year! (Though I'm not saying you have to leave your other important issues to the side. It's all important.)

3. Vote with your feet. If you don't want to eat GMO's, call the companies and find out whether they use GMO's, and don't buy the ones that do. If you want raw milk, support the farms that produce it by buying raw milk or a milkshare. If you don't like hormones in your milk, buy the stuff without it. We have recently bought our first grass-fed beef and have no regrets at all. (It even cost less than Aldi beef, surprisingly!) And we're growing some of our own vegetables, buying others at the farmers' market when we can. That makes a big difference toward keeping the farms we like in business, so that they will be able to keep providing us with high-quality food.

Any other ideas? Do you agree with me, that less regulation would lead to more safety, or have I totally gone off the deep end here?


Anonymous said...

"When I met John, he was a monarchist. Now, he's a libertarian."

Does this indicate a change of heart? There's no contradiction between the two: one is about the manner of governing, one is about the form of government. And many people think the two go together; check out this dude, for instance: He obviously forgot that people like him only appear in novels.

I think I agree with you for the most part: less regulations would be good, especially because existing regulations are subject to regulatory capture by agribusiness and tend simply to protect their interests. This issue has been discussed a fair amount at Front Porch Republic, if you're interested.

Ironically, I was writing something that actually mentions this issue as part of its larger thesis as your post arrived...

~James T

Sheila said...

You're right, James, there is no actual contradiction. One could support monarchy as better protecting freedom. John used to have that view, but he decided our current system of government is more likely to protect against tyranny. You would probably really enjoy debating that with him, I'll wager.

some guy on the street said...

My principal quandary, for the moment, is that most of what is stupid, self-destructive, or sinful actually is harmful to others. Like cracks in the windshield, they may start small, but they spread. "Send not to know for whom" etc.

What to do about it, though, I really don't know.

some guy on the street said...

oh! You asked a question at the end... would less regulation lead to more safety? Hmmm... I'm of the opinion (not well-considered... more an intuitive leap) that the sort of regulation one wants should be the sort that is not excessively burdensome --- the sort that makes it easier to produce food that is reliably safe to eat, not that makes it harder to operate at all. Many of the regulations you're describing sound like they're meant to make the regulator's jobs easier, and to heck with the farmers. They seek to minimize the degree of food- or farm-specific expertise and thought required for enforcement of the rules.

And yet I'm optimistic that sensible guidlines/regulation are accessible. For instance, it ought to be a no-brainer that you don't heap manure next to the dairy; it also ought to be a no-brainer that you make sure a catlebeast is healthy before it even steps into the abatoir. I'd have called it reasonable to expect that packaged ground beef was a one-beast-at-a-time thing; is it that scrubbing the grinder between animals is too much work? Alas...

You're quite right that obsessively testing every jar of whatever is an impossible task, and unnecessary. This is why they invented randomized testing! If you randomly select a bottle of apple juice from one run of the fruit-press and find salmonela (or botulinum or worms ...), then you pause everything and check it all more carefully; you find out whether it's from the bottle or the apples or the press or the trucks. If you find nothing, you're happy!

The only trouble with raw milk (e.g.) that I can see is how small bacterial cultures in rich environments tend to grow exponentially; this means they may transition from undetectable to toxic in rather quick succession. There's another small trouble that there are biotoxins that seem like "iocaine" --- humanly undetectable even in lethal doses. However, there are ways, and not onerous, to deal with those sort of risk --- otherwise we couldn't farm or cook at all, obviously.

Maybe more thoughts later.

Sheila said...

Well, from the studies I've read about raw milk, the antibodies and beneficial bacteria in it tend to crowd out harmful bacteria. Whereas if a single bacterium gets into pasteurized milk, it has a field day. There have been a few cases of listeria contamination in pasteurized milk, but it doesn't usually happen in raw milk.

And, of course, pasteurization does not remove biotoxins, just kills the bacteria that were producing them. You're still drinking dead bacteria. :P

Of course, that having been said, we go through a gallon of pasteurized milk every week, and I've never drunk raw milk in my life. I just think people should have the (informed) choice.

You still have to test a ridiculous number of batches of things to have the slightest chance of finding whatever contagion there is. Even more so if each cow is being turned into ground beef separately. What are the odds of finding the one contaminated batch?

I worry about these things.

In any event, I do, on the whole, agree with you. Regulation that exists to make life burdensome on the small farmer needs to be abolished. Regulation that actually keeps us safe should be the only kind we have.

Salixbabylonica said...

The trouble with regulation (or at least the kind we have now) is that it both stifles innovation and tends to develop illogically.

As far as the innovation, if something doesn't fit within the rules box, it doesn't matter if you can demonstrate that it is superior. For example, my father and a carpenter friend were building a house and wanted approval to use a new technique for the concrete block foundation. They actually built two small sections of wall, one of each type. Then they got the inspector out there, knocked the conventional wall down with one blow of a sledgehammer, and then showed him that they were unable to knock down the wall built with the new technique. The inspector shrugged and said, Nope, can't use it, and that was the end of that.
Since is it arguably the methods of agriculture used today that make our food much less safe, the last thing we need is to discourage new, better methods from being adopted.

As far as the illogicality of regulations, I learned recently (from Making Supper Safe)that (adjusted for relative levels of consumption) processed lunchmeats are 10 times more likely to give you food poisoning than raw milk. Yet raw milk is dangerous, scary, and illegal. Now, that's just irrational regulation.

Sheila said...


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