Over at the US Food Policy blog, Parke Wilde writes about the terrible track-record Foster Farms had with noncompliance leading up to it's widely publicized Salmonella outbreak.
Parke advocates for better public access to food safety information (such as, I presume, the public release of noncompliance reports written by food safety inspectors) as one approach to partially deal with food safety issues.
He also points out the main challenge with food safety: as consumers we often cannot directly observe whether a food is contaminated before purchase. Parke writes:
These innovations may, one day, prove to be a very powerful incentive for companies to provide safe food. The nice thing - from the consumers' perspective - is that they let us take action before an illness happens.
I've been reading the book Fear of Food by Harvey Levenstein. It is a fascinating read, chronicling the history of food fears and fads that hit Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries. I have a few quibbles with some of the material in the chapter on "Bacteria and Beef", but overall, good stuff.
One passage showed how at least one version of the Paleo diet had been advanced since the early 1900s for many of the same reasons it is advocated today, almost 100 years later:
Levenstein also chronicles the emergence of food scientists and nutritionists who often had significant effects on dietary fads and public policies. It is remarkable the hubris with which many of these men made dietary advice and public policy, particularly because we now know they were often quite wrong in their scientific knowledge. Whether it was Metchnikoff and Kellogg and their views on autointoxication and the merits of yogurt, or Horace Fletcher's method of chewing to "Fletcherize" food, or Harvey Wiley and his war on benzoate of soda, or Elmer McCollum and his promotion of acidosis, or Russell Wilder's belief that thiamine deficiencies would cause the nation to loose their will to fight the Nazis - there seems to be a continual stream of people willing to use scant evidence to promote their favored cause to promote public health. Not just idly promote - but with often with righteous indignation and certitude of belief. I have no doubt many of these men passionately believed the diets they promoted but that didn't ultimately make them right.
Levenstein writes, in the midst of concern of lack of vitamin consumption in 1941, that
Unfortunately, something similar could be said about how applied science and technology have often been used none too wisely to promote various public policies and best selling books.
It is true that science has progressed and we know more than we used to. One of the things we've hopefully learned is that we often need to exercise a bit of humility.
That's the question asked in this working paper by Rachel Griffith, Martin O’Connell and Kate Smith. The abstract:
When we feel the pinch, we can substitute away from more expensive to less expensive foods. But, we can also increase the effort we expend in finding better prices. In short, our time is a valuable commodity that we treat like other economic goods.
That fact was also emphasized in a paper by Broda, Leibtag, and Weinstein in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2009. They used some creative methods to ask the question: do the poor pay more or less than the rich? They write:
Note that these authors aren't comparing apples to oranges. They compare the prices paid by rich and poor households for exactly the same goods.
When asked how consumers respond to higher prices or lower incomes, so often we economists refer to indifference curves and budget constrains or do a fair amount of hand-waving. Yet, as these studies show, reality is more complex. We can use our time to find better prices, or we can alter out consumption bundle to provide the same nutritional quality in a less expensive fashion.