Monday, October 17, 2016

Baylen Linnekin: "Biting the Hands That Feed Us"

In Biting the Hands that Feed Us (Island Press, 2016), food lawyer Baylen Linnekin offers a libertarian appeal for reduced food regulations.

Like many such books, Linnekin reviews a long littany of well-meaning business people whose enterprises were thwarted by silly rules and regulations that fail to serve a sound public purpose: small "salumi" makers (sort of like salami) who are told to use preservatives in their cured meats; artisinal cheese makers who are told not to use wooden boards for aging cheese; fishermen who must discard "bycatch" to comply with harvest rules; and local farmers who are prevented from selling off-size tomatoes or who suffer under the fixed costs of compliance with the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

A couple features favorably distinguish this book from others in the same vein. Linnekin's appreciation for small and artisinal producers is heartfelt, in contrast with others who might use complaints about regulation implicitly to breeze over shortcomings in the current conventional industrialized food system. Linnekin's main thesis is that rules too often harm sustainable production strategies. As one might hope, Linnekin takes a completely consistent and highly critical libertarian view of "Ag Gag" laws, which risk preventing private individuals from honestly reporting how food really is produced. I could not help being pleased with Linnekin's coverage of checkoff programs, including a citation to some coverage from this blog.

In the end, though, I think Linnekin understates the genuine public interest motivation for many rules and regulations. With any proposed food safety policy, there is risk of both Type I error (prohibiting an economic action that would not in fact have caused an illness) and Type II error (failing to prevent an illness that we should have prevented). I see the struggle to get this balance right as fundamental to U.S. food safety policy. The fact that Linnekin can recount examples of regulations that failed to correctly judge a particular producer falls far short of persuading a reader of his broader point.

In his final chapter, though without using these terms, Linnekin wrestles with precisely this challenge of getting the balance of Type I and Type II correct. As I would paraphrase the argument, he feels one can distinguish the right regulatory policies by: (a) promoting sustainability, (b) enforcing standards for food safety outcomes, not food safety processes, (c) avoiding any favor for large producers over small producers, and (d) ending farm subsidies. I don't think this four-part screen is sufficient to strike the right balance. For example, deciding when to regulate outcomes and when to regulate processes is complicated. In many cases, it is far more straightforward to regulate the temperature at which food must be held than to regulate microbial counts on the product.

Overall, though I liked the book, I doubt Linnekin is right to call so broadly for regulatory retrenchment. We have endured decades now of strong attacks in the U.S. Congress on regulatory agencies, using sharp anti-government rhetoric, including many of the same libertarian themes that Linnekin highlights. Even if Linnekin does devote one chapter to regulations he does support -- which not every such author would do -- this does not suffice to give the book as a whole a full balance.

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