With America’s “fiscal cliff” approaching, pundits wring their hands over the supposed catastrophe that government spending cuts will bring. A scare newsletter called “Food Poisoning Bulletin” warned recently that if government reduces food inspections, “food will be less safe … (because) marginal companies … (will) cut corners.”
We’re going to die!
Most people believe that without government meat inspection, food would be filthy. We read “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s depiction of the meatpacking business, and assume that the FDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service are all that stand between us and E. coli. Meatpacking conditions were disgusting. Government intervened. Now, we’re safe! A happy ending to a story of callous greed.
The scheming lawyers behind the “Food Poisoning Bulletin” argue that without regulation companies will “cut corners.” After all, they say, sanitation costs money, so lack of regulation “creates a competitive disadvantage for companies that want to produce quality products.”
But that’s bunk. It’s not government that keeps E. coli to a minimum. It’s competition. Tyson Foods, Perdue and McDonald’s have brands to maintain — and customers to lose. Ask Jack in the Box. It lost millions after a food-poisoning scandal.
Fear of getting a bad reputation makes food producers even more careful than government requires. Since the Eisenhower administration, our stodgy government has paid an army of union inspectors to eyeball chickens in every single processing plant. But bacteria are invisible!
Fortunately, food producers run much more sophisticated tests on their own. One employs 2,000 more safety inspectors than government requires: “To kill pathogens, beef carcasses are treated with rinses and a 185-degree steam vacuum,” an executive told me. She also asked that I not reveal the name of her company — it fears retaliation from regulators.
“Production facilities are checked for sanitation with microbiological testing. If anything is detected … we re-clean the equipment. … Equipment is routinely taken completely apart to be swab-tested.”
None of that is required by government. Government regulation may help a little, but we are safe mostly because of competitive markets. Competition protects us better than politicians.