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More or Less Regulated

May 21, 2014

Remember how I mentioned getting an electric guitar recently? Well, I may have overdone it a bit yesterday. In the immortal words of The Beatles, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”

The fab five, however, were not trying to write a food blog. Let me tell you, it’s not pleasant trying to type with an angry blister. So today I’m going to valiantly attempt to keep this short and sweet. I might be tempted to take a day off, but there is one pressing issue that I feel needs to be addressed.

Today I need to take some time and try to set the record straight with a couple of commenters. This may be challenging to do under the current circumstances, especially if I hope to avoid reverting to stereotypes and forced dialectics. It’s especially hard since the issue is inextricably linked to politics, although really, that’s a problem in and of itself.

First let’s be clear about something regarding the political spectrum. This comment from yesterday is a good place to start:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest should rename themselves to the Center for Pseudo-Science in the Interest of Left-Wing Anti-Capitalists.

Hi. So, confession time. The Profusser is one of those left-wing anti-capitalists. It’s true. And you know what, the CSPI doesn’t speak for me nor does it support my interests. Yes, I do acknowledge that there are some on my side of the aisle who are all gung ho for increased regulation around matters that should remain a personal choice.

As I wrote yesterday, regulating and legislating against fat and sugar is madness. Taxing it however, might be something that I could actually get behind. Maybe. I’m not sure. But I could probably be convinced. Regressive taxes don’t really sit well with me either. Honestly, I’m more of a consumer education kind of guy.

Which isn’t to say I’m against regulation per se. Yesterday bluecollarcritic wrote:

IMHO Government regulatory agencies do more harm than good and need to be either closed or greatly reduced in their size, and authority.

In some ways I’m in complete agreement with BCC. Oh, what a glorious life it would be if we in America could get the best young raw milk cheeses of Europe delivered to our shores. The regulation against importation of some of the world’s best foods is maddening. For decades we couldn’t get jamon iberico because it was illegal to import. That prohibition has been lifted, but there are still others that restrict our freedom.

However, big businesses (and even some little ones) are tricky SOBs. And our food system is so complex that it only takes one bad actor to ruin 1.8 million pounds of ground beef. It’s an impossibly large number to comprehend, but that’s the size of the current recall. Just to contextualize that, it’s about all of the meat from 3,600 cows. That’s still hard to imagine. Think of fifteen full size cows fitting in a railroad boxcar. The train that would haul all of these animals to the dump would be 240 cars long.

The regulators who keep an eye on our meat supply are few and far between. Their numbers have been decimated, and there are not nearly enough boots on the ground to do the job. Sometimes they happen to literally stumble upon a serious problem, but these official watchmen need larger budgets, increased staffs, and significantly more authority.

For those who have been paying attention to what’s been happening with food as processors and manufacturers get larger, and regulators are increasingly being hired from the industries that they are supposed to be regulating, the past couple of decades have been mortifying.

When I was at my mother-in-law’s church in rural Pennsylvania, I found that ideologically I had a lot more in common with these socially conservative right wing country folks than I had imagined. They wouldn’t eat supermarket eggs either. And when they could, they would shun mass market meat for something raised by someone they knew.

It was funny how much the church ladies sounded like young leftist urbanites at a farmers market.

One of the major reasons why this isn’t actually a political issue is because both political parties are beneficiaries of big food’s largesse. So it doesn’t matter if you vote Democrat or Republican, the USDA will continue to soften organic labeling standards and biotech/chemical firms will continue to crank out innovations that cause unanticipated problems down the road because new products were greenlit with insufficient regulatory review.

Our hubris is shocking. We have failed to learn the lessons of our past. And we continue to march on with our sights on short term gains versus the long term impact of our actions. Increased regulation isn’t a silver bullet, and certainly it’s not needed everywhere, but there are sectors within the food industry that could really use better oversight.

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