Few issues are as important to consumers as the safety and quality of their food—from microbial contaminants to pesticides, and from organics to obesity. Recent health scares—from salmonella-contaminated eggs to E. coli-contaminated spinach and tomatoes—show just how fragile the food chain can be. But, while these tragic events have led to calls for greater government oversight of the food supply, the nature of these scares shows that additional regulations or inspections are likely to do little to improve food safety. Poorly conceived government regulation often does as much to compromise food safety, affordability, and choice as to promote it—especially when the regulatory framework is focused on a fear-driven activist agenda rather than on basic principles of science and genuine safety.
Too often, the government’s regulatory agenda favors politically expedient outcomes over those that would actually promote safety and availability. For example, the U.S. government maintains outmoded visual examination and “poke and sniff” food inspectors whose methods are incapable of detecting microbial pathogens. At the same time, heavy regulatory burdens make it difficult to introduce technologies, such as irradiation, that could cut the incidence of those pathogens by half or more. Americans consume nearly 1 billion meals every day, and microbial pathogens can be introduced at any stage in the food production and distribution system. Merely adding additional inspectors cannot realistically be expected to prevent future contaminations. Instead, the legal system should punish producers and sellers who are negligent in the handling or purchasing of the foods we eat. Food companies should be allowed the flexibility to adopt technologies and practices that can cut the incidence of foodborne contaminants.