The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership
Volume 16, Number 10
The Dangers of Food Safety
by Patrick Weinert
Agriculture Secretary Daniel Glickman has been deeply troubled by perceived problems with America's food supply. In a meeting with the Senate Agricultural Committee last fall, Glickman urged lawmakers to approve legislation which would give his department more enforcement authority over cases of contaminated meat and poultry. Among other provisions, he demanded that the department be able to impose fines of $100,000 per day on violators of meat-processing regulations. "I think we can come down a little more strongly on the side of the consumer," the secretary told senators.
Regardless of whether Mr. Glickman's utilitarian cost-benefit analysis would stand up to objective scrutiny, the recent surge in concern about food safety is real. The frequency of illnesses has progressively received more attention, giving "consumer groups" an excuse to push more government programs and regulations to protect the public. Officials in the U.S. Department of Agriculture say meat-packers have too much power and bureaucrats have too little.
Far from being a result of careless meat-packers or a lack of regulatory oversight, the current food safety crisis has mainly been caused by the federal government's own notorious Food and Drug Administration. While it has been clamoring for more activism in the name of "public health," the FDA only last December legalized radiation pasteurization for red meat, a process which has proven to be effective in killing poisonous bacteria.
This process, in which the meat is exposed to low dosages of radiation, can reduce the amount of bacteria (called "pathogens") in flesh foods by over 90 percent. Don Thayer of the Department of Agriculture has demonstrated that this process has been most successful against the pathogens E. coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, and Listeria monocytogenes. Thayer also argues that the years of experience in the irradiation of other foods shows the process to be very safe and to leave the nutritional value of the food unchanged.
Consumers are not even able to detect a difference in taste when sampling both irradiated and non-irradiated products. Yet, the FDA required an additional three years of research before agreeing to legalize this process, claiming that manufacturing safety must take first priority.
This policy approach is very disturbing, especially since the irradiation procedure has been used for years and proven to be both safe and effective. Over 30 years ago, the FDA approved its use for wheat products and potatoes, and then extended it to spices and vegetable seasonings in 1983. Three years later, pork and meat-based animal foods were given approval, and poultry followed in 1990. Irradiation was not legalized for use in preparing red meat until December 3, 1997, more than seven years after all other foods had received approval, and more than three years after the petition for its legalization was presented. The FDA is one of the loudest advocates for food safety, but it turns out to be one of the largest obstacles.
How does one explain this paradox? After the irradiation process was approved for all other foods, why were three more years of research necessary to approve ground beef? Furthermore, why was more research required for red meat when the FDA already approved irradiation for all astronaut food, including steak?
George Pauli of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition claims that while irradiation may potentially provide great advances in enhancing the safety of ground beef, such anticipated benefits must play no role in determining the length of time needed to research the procedure. At first glance, this statement sounds altruistic. But it essentially means that FDA officials know the "optimal" moment at which a new food process or drug should become available. Those who suffer or die as a result while waiting for the new technology are simply unfortunate casualties in the calculus for greater safety.
Meat-packers see great profitability in radiation pasteurization as well, since the reduction of foodborne bacteria also reduces lawsuits and costly recalls from retail stores and restaurants.
Yet from August 25, 1994, until December 3, 1997, the FDA would not approve of radiation treatment for red meat and meat-based products. While leading the public to believe that it was seeking greater safety, in reality the FDA only succeeded in preventing many Americans from protecting themselves against foodborne poisonous bacteria.
In addition, numerous meat-packers continued to be plagued by the high cost of food recalls, costs which could easily have been avoided if the process had been legal. In 1993, hamburger meat contaminated with the E. coli bacteria was responsible for the notorious "Jack-in-the-Box" disease outbreak. In the Pacific Northwest four children died and 700 others became sick, some suffering permanent brain and kidney damage. And last summer, the largest meat-recall in the history of the nation was conducted by Hudson Foods, Incorporated, when sixteen people in Colorado became sick after eating ground beef patties infected with E. coli. The return of 25 million pounds of hamburger meat to Hudson brought the company's quarterly earnings down by 30 percent and cost the company its largest customer, Burger King.
Contaminated food in the United States has been responsible for roughly 9,000 deaths each year and between 6.5 million and 33 million cases of illness. According to the FDA's own estimates, the E. coli bacteria alone is responsible for 250 deaths and 20,000 infections annually. Yet the spread of foodborne illness is largely preventable so long as meat processors are permitted to use the newest technologies. While government leaders are the first to demand new regulations to enhance food safety, the government's own foot-dragging bureaucrats are largely responsible for the problem. This three-year delay for the approval of irradiation has literally resulted in thousands of avoidable deaths and cases of illness.
Considering the manner in which the FDA has been established, it probably should not be a surprise how long it takes for new technologies and drugs to receive approval. Regulators consider only the dangers of side effects in food-handling processes, and the danger in ruining their own reputations. Those in danger of suffering or death take the real risk as new technologies which could help them are withheld for relatively trivial reasons.
However, the most disturbing fact about the agency is the current predatory control to which it has been subjected. Although it was originally trumpeted as the guardian of consumer safety, today it has openly become a great tool for special interests. This was demonstrated by last year's Congressional debate over the proposed Access to Medical Treatment Act, a bill designed to loosen FDA regulations on alternative medicine. Members of both political parties who opposed the bill received almost $4 million in campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies, medical professionals, and other members of organized medicine.
What Americans are currently witnessing in the Food and Drug Administration is nothing more than a well-publicized charade. The regulators who clamor for more government programs to provide greater food safety are, in fact, the ones who benefit most from a retarded discovery process. Until the public recognizes that the FDA is the very source of the problem, the current crusade for food safety will continue to move at an anemic pace. Real safety lies in informed decision-making by the individual. If the federal government truly desires greater efficiency in screening the food supply, the best step would be a loosening of its regulatory choke-hold on the development of new technologies.
Who has a stronger incentive to truly protect the consumer? Producers in the market whose livelihoods depend on it? Or bureaucrats in Washington who are utterly disconnected from the market process and easily manipulated by special interests?
Patrick Weinert is a research fellow for the Tenth Amendment Institute and writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
FURTHER READING: Donald Thayer and Glenn Boyd, "Elimination of Escherichia coli 0157:H7 in Meats by Gamma Irradiation," Applied and Environmental Microbiology (April 1993): 1030-4; Robert Higgs, "Banning A Risky Product Cannot Improve Any Consumer's Welfare (Properly Understood), with Applications to FDA Testing Requirements," Review of Austrian Economics 7, no. 2 (1994): 3-20.