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Food Safety Regulation in the United States: An Empirical and Theoretical Examination

By Yasuda, Tomohide | Independent Review, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Food Safety Regulation in the United States: An Empirical and Theoretical Examination


Yasuda, Tomohide, Independent Review


Consumers in the United States are frequently exposed to news about food poisoning outbreaks. The year 2009 started with a Salmonella outbreak caused by contaminated peanut paste (Blaney 2009). The year 2008 featured a Salmonella outbreak caused by peppers but initially blamed on tomatoes (Garber 2008b). The memory of three deaths in 2006 from spinach contaminated with the virulent O 157:H7 serotype of the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. coli) is still vivid (Levine 2007). Outbreak news is often accompanied by editorials that advocate larger budgets for food safety regulatory bodies (see, for example, Alliance for a Stronger FDA 2009). It is almost accepted wisdom that food safety regulation is indispensible and that the food safety authorities should do more to guarantee the safety of food sold on the U.S. market.

Before we expand any existing program, however, we need to examine whether that program is working as projected. The constant demand by the news media, politicians, and advocacy groups for greater funding for food safety agencies suggests that previous budget increases for these agencies have not produced the expected safety improvement. In this article, I first present the result of an empirical examination of the effectiveness of major food safety regulations in the United States, which shows that the effects of these regulations were not discernible in the food-borne-illness outbreak statistics collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If government programs for food safety have not reduced food-borne illnesses, we need to doubt the accepted wisdom and ask the fundamental question: Is government intervention in the food market appropriate in the first place? I then examine the theoretical justification for food safety regulation and demonstrate that the theory is fundamentally flawed. I explain how the commonly used cost-benefit analysis rests on flawed methods and thus can always create the appearance of market failure and justify further government intervention in the food market.

Empirical Testing of Major Food Safety Regulations

The U.S. government maintains a complex patchwork of food safety bureaucracies that have multiplied over the past century. The activities these bureaucracies undertake may be divided into regulation of plant/factory sanitation, product inspection, restaurant inspection, consumer education, and compilation of disease outbreak statistics. These activities are shared by regulators at the federal, state, and local levels. In the federal government, fifteen agencies have legal mandates to provide food safety, with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the CDC playing major roles (Walker 2007). The FDA and the USDA inspect domestic and imported food products as well as food-processing plants. The USDA inspects meat, poultry, eggs, and the processing plants for these products, and the FDA inspects the rest of foodstuffs and their plants (U.S. General Accounting Office [GAO] 1998, 2). Both federal and state agencies issue consumer advisories (Institute of Medicine 2007, 21-24). Restaurant inspection is usually carried out by local, county, or state health department personnel (Jones et al. 2004). The CDC compiles food-borne-disease outbreak statistics in cooperation with state governments, which also inspect food products and food-processing plants in their jurisdictions (Institute of Medicine 1991, 302-3).

The federal food safety mechanism has been criticized for its complex mandatory sharing and overlapping of activities among various agencies (see, for example, National Research Council 1998; Robinson 2005; "Import Alert" 2007; Trust for America's Health 2008). These criticisms, however, typically look at organizational arrangements, mandates, regulatory methodology, staff levels, and inspection efforts and do not examine whether the regulations are actually reducing food-borne illnesses.

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