The Problem With Free-Market Beef

By Mara Gay
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Photo by iLoveButter/Flickr CC


What does the beef industry have in common with finance? More than you might think, according to pundits reacting to a story in this weekend's New York Times, which exposed dangerous flaws in the nation's beef inspection system that may have led to serious illnesses. The piece focused on the industry practice of combining meats of varying quality to make ground beef, increasing the risk of E. coli contamination. Seeing parallels with the financial crisis, liberal commentators and economists make the case for more regulation in the food industry.

    • Just Like the Mortgage Mess, Andrew Samwick writes at Capital Gains and Games. "Apparently, the originate to distribute model can pose some problems when applied to livestock that may carry E. coli." Samwick argues that the beef company practice of combining different cuts of meat from a variety of distributors is similar to the system that got the mortgage industry in trouble. "As in the mortgage mess, finding the party to hold accountable is difficult, since the responsibility is shared among a number of entities, public and private, domestic and international."

    • 'As With Finance, So it Is in Food.' Ezra Klein writes at The Washington Post. Even before the Times published its investigation of contaminated meat, Klein found the parallels between financial regulation and food safety striking. He says that like banks, the food industry too has consolidated, making Americans as vulnerable to E. coli contamination as their banks were to bad assets. "Ask yourself: How did E. coli bacteria get on spinach and cookie dough?" He explains:

This is the modern face of tainted food: not a bad egg or a piece of rotted meat, but contamination at a production plant that serves hundreds of companies making thousands of foods. We have a system that does a much better job of making sure most food is safe but is much more vulnerable when something does go wrong. Outbreaks are hard to contain because they're hard to trace. Consumers know not to eat peanuts during a peanut outbreak, but they don't know to avoid foods that contain production compounds laced with peanuts.

    •'The Free Market Can't Keep Our Food Safe,' Steve Benen writes at The Washington Monthly.' Benen says food corporations are putting people in danger to save costs. "If policymakers simply let the free market guide the food-safety process, the results include people like Stephanie Smith, a young woman who was nearly killed for engaging in high-risk behavior: eating a hamburger for dinner." In his view, more regulation is clearly necessary.

Federal officials need to intervene to do what American consumers cannot do for themselves, in this case, imposing stricter safety regulations. For all the Teabaggers/Fox News hatred for government regulation--"I don't want Obama's hands in my hamburger!" --a story like this one should turn the anti-government crusade on its head.

    • 'Do You Really Want the Government's Hands Out of Your Hamburger?' Todd Gitlin asks at Talking Points Memo. "Or is the paralyzed 22-year-old Stephanie Smith, a victim of E. coli passed down the food chain by Cargill in the guise of 'American Chef's Selection Angus Beef Patties,' which included slaughterhouse trimmings, a case of collateral damage in the War Against Regulation?"

    • Obama Should Force the USDA to Defend American Citizens, Mark Kleiman writes at The Reality-Based Community. "If the President insists, loudly and publicly, that USDA act right now to defend the public from tainted food, he'll have the voters on his side. I can't think of a better way of showing the public, including the Tea Party attendees, who is actually on their side against the faceless bureaucracies, private and public, that mistreat them."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/10/the-problem-with-free-market-beef/27813/