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Would less regulation result in higher quality food?

Food safety inspectorsIf you got annoyed by Salatin's preachy writing style, I recommend skipping to the last two chapters of Folks, This Ain't Normal to see the meat of his argument.  His thesis is simple --- if our government didn't regulate food, we'd have healthier dining choices.

Why would lack of oversight make our food better?  The answer is twofold.  First, the current requirements make it very tough for small, local farmers to break into the marketplace at all.  Someone starting a food-related business may have to buy expensive equipment to create a federally inspected kitchen before they can whip up brownies for sale at the local farmer's market, or they may have to adhere to even more stringent requirements to open up a slaughterhouse and sell cut meat.  Economies of scale mean these issues are no big deal for industrial food-processing operations, but government requirements sink many mom-and-pop businesses.  As Salatin wrote, "What started as a regulation to control industry has instead become the tool industry uses to eliminate innovation in the food marketplace."

USDA food safetyMeanwhile, those happy USDA-approved stickers on our food make the consumer less inclined to seek out the truth behind how their food was raised.  Salatin explains that in many cases, USDA-approval is merely about cosmetic issues, such as the size of your eggs or the absence of tears in skin of a chicken leg, but the consumer instead assumes the seal of approval means the chickens were healthy and the food is good for us.  If the government didn't approve or disapprove of food, we would be responsible for our own choices, which would send many of us out to hunt down the farmer to see what their operation really looks like.  Once again, lack of government oversight would help the little farmer, who is often the one passionate about soil and food quality and is thus growing more nutrient-dense food.  "The way we create popular food literacy is to put people in the driver's seat," Salatin concluded.

While I disagree with many libertarian arguments, the food one has always made sense to me.  I would love to see food become a local, community endeavor, where neighbors would know the confinement chicken operation wasn't worth patronizing and where raw milk could be legally peddled at the farmhouse door.  Sure, some people would get sick from an unmanaged food supply, but maybe fewer than get sick now from regulations that often amount to window-dressing.  What do you think?

This is my last book club post for a while, but you can read previous discussions of Salatin's book in previous posts: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.  If you're looking for more reading material, check out some of the books on my winter reading list, or (if you really get bored), you can even read my books.  Happy reading!

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Nope! To much information to sort out. Very few, and I mean very few, folk care to know anything about the food they eat. They want to assume someone else is doing that for them.

QUOTE: If the government didn't approve or disapprove of food, we would be responsible for our own choices, which would send many of us out to hunt down the farmer to see what their operation really looks like.*

Really? Think about urban/suburban populations: I doubt 1% of individuals would check out 1% of their food. Who would the liability fall on, clearly NOT the individual. The marketplace may be a quagmire, with untenable regulations, but a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants anarchy of a marketplace with no regulation cannot be the solution.

Comment by Gerry Wed Jan 9 12:43:45 2013

I have not read the book to know what his arguments are, but I think food would go two ways.

Large scale food would become horrible. With a lack of regulations it wouldn't be long until their efforts would not even be food (we are already pretty close to that now)

Small scale food would have a chance once the shackles are thrown off.

The combination of the two would likely cause a rise in healthy, natural & local food.

Comment by Jason Wed Jan 9 12:53:33 2013

Heres a thought: If our country keeps going the way it is, many people won't even know what real food is. ex Hambuger Helper, gummy candy, mircwave food. Have you ever read the ingredients on this stuff? Joel has the guts to tell it like it is.

By the way. I have been wanting to ask, What do you do for Fire safety there? Do you have a plan in case your house catches on fire. Watched a show set in Alaska and the house burnt to the ground because the fire company was so far away. I just bought your weekend homesteading book!!! Can't put it down. So I'm just concerned for your safety.

Comment by Donnas Wed Jan 9 13:09:42 2013

Hi Anna,

I particularly like his comment in the last issue of AcresUSA.

That one government office leads to another government office, etc.

For additional reading look at the ballot issue passed by at least 3 Maine towns. Basically it said we don't need your government "help". Go away and don't bother us.

Or to put it another way which portions of the government would you pay for if you had the choice? And isn't that what democracy is supposed to be?

My understanding is that if I buy a live chicken or pig or steer from you, I own it and I can do whatever I wish with it. Including let you help me prepare it? I am sure that does not sit well with people who don't work for a living but who have nice offices and cushy jobs and prefer to eat at fast food restaurants.

I have probably said too much already :) :).


Comment by john Wed Jan 9 14:42:52 2013

The cost of complying with all the federal regulations are staggering. If I wanted to legally sell a few chickens each year my cost of complying with the heavy regulation would prevent me from ever doing so. Our cost of food would go down if there were fewer restrictions.

I don't have the financial means to set up our property to comply with the FDA and see a few chickens, ducks and rabbits that were butchered and ready to be prepared for the table. But I'd be willing to bet the meat I'd provide would be better for you than the stuff bought in town.

There was a story last year from some where out East, maybe PA? Anyway, as I recall, the Feds were going after an Amish or Mennonite family for selling raw milk "across state lines" and forced them to stop selling milk. They argued it was dangerous to do so because it was unpasteurized and a serious health hazard.

Comment by Heath Wed Jan 9 15:20:09 2013

I'm familiar with other comments and ideas by the author having heard interviews in numerous documentaries, but have not yet read this particular book from cover to cover. In general, I have a great deal of respect for his farming practices and ideas.

I don't know that a lack of regulation would be the answer, but we could use a LOT more transparency. "Pink Slime" comes to mind immediately. Proper labeling would be a good start. Ie: Labeling of GM produce and processed food. That's not all there needs to be, though. I've come to realize it's quite the maze to sort out the difference between USDA-Organic labeled food, and items that are stamped Non-Gmo Verified, and it's worth noting few things are labelled as both. While the latter isn't dripping in pesticide from the inside out, it could still in theory be sprayed and qualify for the non-gmo label. (yep, I'm one of those... :D)

We are entitled to a CHOICE. Raw milk and going directly to the farm for produce, etc. like done in days gone by would be a refreshing change, and we should be able to do that if we so desire. It could just be as simple as signing a waiver of liability if I want to buy raw milk acknowledging that per whatever state I'm in, it could possibly make me sick, or one could get salmonella from chickens or eggs, etc. The small farms have ever incentive to make sure what people eat is safe and healthy. Otherwise, it would be their end....If you bought something at so-and-so's farm, and became ill with a food born illness, you aren't going to buy there anymore, and you WILL tell all your friends, too.

By the way, I love your site. I stumbled across your site a few months back, and thoroughly enjoy reading your posts.

Comment by Renee Wed Jan 9 15:29:34 2013

There should be a place for small farmers to sell there wares, but total deregulation is not the answer.

Big firms are driven by profits, and not necessarily by customer health! And it's not just ill will, but plain old laziness and incompetence too. So I think their outputs should be monitored.

One method of combining the two is to exempt small sellers who sell home-grown food from regulations. But if I were a small farmer in the U.S. of A, I'd would want to have immunity from lawsuits as well! Or the first person to get food poisoning from anything you sold could possibly get a rediculously huge damages award. Additionally, customers should be made aware of the potential risks of specific foods.

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Jan 9 17:18:39 2013

In the late 80s I worked at a major beef processing plant and there are as many ways around the rules as there are people who work in the plant. The USDA inspector(s) were a joke as their routine was known, including the variations and new hires where taught exactly how to keep the line from going down. 25 years ago my extension of the plant did 350 head of cattle an hour - slow because it was afternoons & we were always undermanned. Days shift, main plant could do 900 an hour & the goal was to go higher. Now with that many animals going from mooing to plastic wrap in an hour not very much is actually getting inspected. My sister and brother worked in a pork plant (brother quit within this past year) and very little has changed. It sounds good if the facility is clean and washed down regularly but it's not really that good. All we know is to wash the meat you buy at the store before cooking and learn to love your meat thermometer. I really cannot see a small producer doing some of the things I saw at my job.

One solution to the idea of no rules means no safety is already in practice. My husband works at an international food company & the facility is ofter toured by Walmart and other corporations, with their proceedures books looked at to try to make sure that the facility's quality meets Walmart's standards. Now this might make some laugh but keeping a reputation is a big deal. With the company's own reptutation and it's buyers at stake his facility is 4 star on keeping things clean and good quality. 4 star only because there are some issues that will always be worked at when dealing with large amounts of food and employees who may not care what the book says.

Because I worked with beef & my siblings with pork I am on the fence about some proceedures. Good labeling laws would go a long way toward letting people choose their poison. There's pros and cons to all the choices and people should be allowed to weigh them for themselves but that might mean trusting that adults can make good judgements which is a whole other game.

Comment by Stephanie Thu Jan 10 01:13:25 2013

This is simple: just make the regulations voluntary. We're not talking about air pollution here -- everyone chooses what they eat anyway. If they still want their USDA meat, then they can insist on only eating USDA meat. Big companies would stick with the regulations for liability reasons. Make those companies that use the USDA label pay for it. This would free others to seek alternative labels for their products. The result would be that better competition would soon spring up, from regulators who promise standards that are higher, or perhaps just different. Maybe the competition would even cause the USDA to step up its game.

For most people reading this, no regulations means a much greater availability of local food. In that case, we are in direct contact with the farmer and have a better idea of the food's safety and quality than with anything we find in the store. And let's be honest, there's plenty of perfectly safe "black market" food out there already. Legalizing it would allow for even more public scrutiny of safety practices. You'd probably see some sort of free internet "regulation by crowdsourcing" spring up, as an added assurance to the customers of local food.

If we just make government regulation of food voluntary (and self-funding), people who are perfectly happy with the status quo could just continue with what they're eating. But we’d also have the freedom to exercise our personal choice. With freedom, everyone wins... :-)

Comment by BeninMA Thu Jan 10 02:15:46 2013
We were thinking the same thing but you did a MUCH better job of putting it into words. Allow me to make the choices for myself and my family and stop FORCING stuff on us. If the way the government does it really is better then that system will thrive. But I think we all know it wouldn't.
Comment by Heath Thu Jan 10 12:21:41 2013

I like the idea of exempting small farmers from regulations, but the issue of where you draw the line would be pretty contentious. You could also consider exempting people within a certain distance of the marketplace. Seems like making regulations optional would work if every producer that chose to opt out was stamped with some kind of sticker that said "unregulated" or something, just to alert the consumer. Maybe there's a better way to put that. Or farmers and producers could simply be liable for any food poisoning up to a certain monetary value? Libertarians are all about free market values, and while that brings up a lot of fear in me of people hiding unsafe practices in order to eke out more profit, I wonder if it wouldn't be better. Clearly what we have is broken- I'd love to try an idea like that on a small scale- say for a "charter" city or town somewhere. We really need places to explore more radical ideas as a society. But it would have to be well organized, allowing people to be informed without disrupting the balance of the market. And our farm subsidy system would throw the whole thing off anyways.

Comment by Mike Thu Jan 10 13:22:21 2013

The argument that “they” want to force “us” just never rings true for me. Do we feel the same way about compulsory car insurance or the need to have a valid driving license? How about the choice to drive while buzzed? Do we feel the same about the infant formula that was produced in China, a country with few regulations and systems?

Are farmer’s markets or farm stand regulated in any formal manner? As was pointed out above, functionally our regulated inspection system barley works as it is. Do we want better, more expensive inspection systems or are we willing to let folks fend for themselves?

All in all we are not going to a local market system, as in an open air browse and buy from various venders, like you might see in Europe, or central America. I'm fine with folks buying locally without many regulations, though I am not so sure about raw milk and your friendly farmer butcher. [I see fowls hanging from their legs and baskets of the daily catch.]

Comment by Gerry Thu Jan 10 20:29:41 2013

From the beginning of time the rule was "caveat emptor," but that gave the lawyers no chance to make any money. So now we have "caveat vendor." That's the real purpose behind laws & regs: to give the lawyers something to work with. Food regs still don't protect the consummer very well. The vast majority of food borne illness comes from contamination or improper handling at the site of final prepartion, not at the source.

Excessive regulation merely guarantees mediocrity across the board with diminished opportunity & motivation to excell.

Comment by doc Fri Jan 11 19:08:22 2013
I find it interesting, Anna, that you say you largely disagree with the libertarian thinking. In my opinion, you and Mark are perfect examples of what they say we should be. You are left to make your own choices, are largely free from government regulation concerning the food you grow, live the life style you choose and take advantage of a free market capitalist system to pay your bills. That's EXACTLY what we want. The freedom to live our lives as we choose, free from regulation and others telling us what we can or can not do.
Comment by Heath Wed Jan 16 13:14:34 2013
.... not freedom from all government. That would be anarchy. We want limited government. Big difference.
Comment by Heath Wed Jan 16 13:19:48 2013
Heath --- Where libertarians and I part ways is when it comes to looking out for the little guy. I agree that libertarian philosophies would make my life easy, but I consider myself very lucky to have so many assets and such a good support network. I think the role of government isn't to help people like me, who already have it good, but to make sure others don't fall through the cracks.
Comment by anna Wed Jan 16 13:26:44 2013

I agree, support those who need it. But in order for the government to provide for others they've first got to take away from you and me. They're horribly inefficient and much of what they take from us is wasted in all the bureaucracy. We'd all be better served if families and communities took care of those in need more through charity and other involvement.

Thanks for the reply! We often disagree on politics but I appreciate the honest discussion.

Comment by Heath Wed Jan 16 13:43:30 2013

If we look deeply and thoughtfully at our own lives, I think many of us would realize that we have more in common with the libertarians than with our more conventional political party. How many of us, especially homesteaders, build additions and sheds without permits? Purchase raw milk on the sly? Have unregistered and uninspected bee hives? Give up on chickens because of city ordinances? Build things with an independent spirit and concerns for the safety of our loved ones but not a consideration of building codes and paying permit fees? And if we can build on our own land without paying for the privilege, why can't everyone? Or do we fall into the trap of thinking that "they" should pay permit fees and taxes, but "we" shouldn't?  

Looking out for the little guy is a kindhearted world view. Unfortunately, the government doesn't have a great track record of taking care of the little guy. It is easy to think that "gov't" will take care of the little guy, but isn't that the same intellectual abdication as thinking that "the gov't" will take care of our food supply?

Comment by unintentional libertarian Mon Jan 21 15:27:00 2013

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime