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Recall the Government Meat Inspectors


The record recall of hamburger meat from the Hudson Foods plant in Nebraska should prompt us to ask whether the government should be certifying the safety of America’s food supply.

That may come as a shock. Doesn’t the E. coli-contaminated beef show that we badly need government inspection? It seems we do not. The federal government has been inspecting meat for decades, and yet this contamination occurred. There was a worse outbreak in 1993 (the “Jack-in-the-Box” case), and the government is using the smaller scale of the current case to show that it is getting better at its job of keeping food clean.

But I would suggest that there is another way to interpret what is going on. Contrary to the claims of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, government inspection doesn’t make you safer. It makes you more vulnerable.

It does so by removing food safety from your list of daily concerns. Some people would say it is good that we don’t have to think about food safety. That is supposed to be the great benefit of having government take charge of the matter. But since, as we’ve just been reminded, government cannot guarantee that food is untainted, are we really better off for thinking we need not be concerned? Maybe if we were not under the illusion that the government was certifying the safety of ground beef, nearly 20 people in Colorado would not have gotten sick.

When government assures people that it is looking after something, it invariably lulls them into believing that they need not look after it themselves. Everyone sees the USDA seal on meat packages. That seal says, in effect, “Not to worry. Your government is taking care of you.” So people don’t worry. They trust the government. That is trust misplaced.

The upshot is that if government presumes to keep our food safe, we will be less vigilant and therefore less safe.

Does this mean there should be no inspection of meat plants? No. Only that there should be no government inspection. Competition is the best protector of consumers. The perverse result of government inspection is that it removes safety as a factor of competition. If all companies are subject to the same government safety certification, they will not regard it as worthwhile to compete on the basis of safety. Minimum standards will tend to become maximums. Compliance with government standards will be a defense against lawsuits. (The exception proves the rule: Hebrew National, which makes kosher meat, brags that it answers to a “higher authority.”) In general, the government monopoly on certification neutralizes safety as a competitive issue. That’s bad.

To see this point, imagine a food industry unregulated by government. Companies seeking to make profits will go to great lengths to assure their customers that their products are safe. Their advertisements would address the issue. They would brag that their procedures are better than their competitors’. Retailers would also have a stake in keeping their customers safe.

But that’s not all. We would see the emergence of a competitive private inspection industry. Inspection companies would build reputations and profits on records of competence and honesty. Food companies would then make much of the fact that their plants are looked at by the inspectors with the best reputations. Private inspectors, whose profits would depend on reputation, would be less likely to become corrupt than the faceless inspection bureaucracies of the government.

This is not just theory. The safety certification of electrical appliances is performed not by government, but by Underwriters Laboratories, a private organization. Before a product gets the coveted UL stamp, it must meet rigorous standards. After decades of service, Underwriters Laboratories has such a sterling reputation that anything carrying the seal engenders confidence. UL has been at it so long that safety is no longer a competitive factor. But that is only because of the confidence UL has worked so hard to achieve. There is no short cut to that situation.

Competition is the consumer’s best friend, his best assurance of safety. Taking safety out of the competitive realm, therefore, is not in our interest. When government says it is taking care of us, it lulls us into a false sense of security. But a false sense of security is worse than no sense of security at all.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.