Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Food Safety: Public or Private?

Powell says "Government's still not that into you":
I generally ignore food safety chatter from Washington. If a proposal does emerge, such as the creation of a single food inspection agency or the passage of this Senate bill, I ask, Will it actually make food safer? Will fewer people get sick?...
Government has something to do with it. However the best producers, processors, retailers and restaurants will go above and beyond government standards – and brag about it. The best provide public access to food safety test results, provide warnings to populations at risk, insist on mandatory training for anyone who touches food, and market food safety at retail, to create a food safety culture all the way back to the farm.
The best organizations will use their own people to demand ingredients from the best suppliers; use a mixture of encouragement and enforcement to foster a food safety culture; and use technology to be transparent -- whether it's live webcams in the facility or real-time test results on the website -- to help restore the shattered trust with the buying public.
And the best won’t sit around lamenting the failures of government: they’ll just do it.
 A few relevant questions:

Who does set food safety standards? the business or the consumer? the government (and which part thereof) or the voter or the business lobbyist or the health lobbyist or...? I don't believe the answers to that question are obvious.

Case study: Wendy's in Ithaca lost my business forever because I had a stomach upset three times in a row eating at the two franchises there, so I turn to Wendy's in Syracuse for my square-burger-and-frosty fix and to Friendly's or Five Guys in town. I set the food standard that I will accept from a business so that even though it's the business's choice what to offer me, it's my choice what and where I will eat. In fact, one of the Wendy's I stopped frequenting (no plastic gloves! pink hamburger! clearly below government standards) went out of business in the mall. I probably helped, but it took several years. Which of us (gov, Wendy's franchise owner, Wendy's franchise worker who didn't wear gloves and wiped his nose with his hand while preparing food thereby guaranteeing I would never darken their door again, me) set the standard?

Who should? Your answer to that one will depend heavily on what you are maximizing/minimizing. If you maximize health outcomes/minimize barfing, you probably want some team of health analysts to set the standards through the government and the "best" businesses are free to attract customers by offering something better. If you maximize efficiency, stop right there and read this post, then try again. If you maximize personal freedom, get voters and governments and lobbyists the happy meal away from my food! If you maximize "Big Bidness" profits, the government probably has a role to play in terms of setting standards that are more costly for little companies so that Big Food can get market power or something like that. If you maximize the number of people with access to a minimum standard based on a human rights ethic, there will be yet another constellation of optimal forces.

And please remember that removing all risk is not humanly possible. There is no perfectly safe food, so the question is always how safe and what your risk tolerance is going to be.

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