My friend Captain Awkward pointed me in the direction of this long read on the poisoning of Parkersburg, WV by DuPont last week and ever since reading it, I’ve had government regulation on my mind. There’s a growing push by people like Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm and the Weston A Price Foundation to reduce government regulation of foodstuffs in the United States, mostly on the argument that it will make it easier for small farmers to sell consumers things they want to eat, like raw milk. Many people I know are on board with reducing or eliminating government regulation, arguing that people should be able to buy whatever food they want.
The problem, of course, with this is that it would allow people and corporations to sell whatever food they want. Historically, businesses have not been known for adhering to stringent food safety practices unless forced to by government regulation. To say “Well then people should know their farmers” is completely unrealistic in an age when the vast majority of Americans live in cities and simply do not have the time or money to make a pilgrimage to a small farm or farmer’s market to buy the week’s supply of meat, milk, and eggs.
Attempting to place the burden of determining which foods are safe and which foods are not on the consumer is an attempt to return is to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s worth remembering that before federal laws and regulations existed, people regularly died from or were sickened by contaminated food. A and when I say “contaminated” I don’t mean accidental contamination, I mean practices like soaking rotten meat in borax and red food dye to pass it off as fresh.
Likewise, the big push for the legalization of raw milk erases risks like tuberculosis and listeriosis. Any law that allows me to sell raw milk from my health-tested, happy herd will also allow some others to sell raw milk from animals with zoonotic diseases, processed using equipment of dubious cleanliness. The list of people from whom I would get raw milk is short and select. Raw milk handled properly beginning with the health of the animal giving it is quite safe, but handled without regard for the fact that it’s a really great food for pathogenic bacteria as well as people there’s a very real potential for it to kill someone. The same goes for meat slaughtered at home rather than at USDA-approved processing facilities. History gives us no reason to assume that agribusiness will adhere to safe food handling practices without the threat of government intervention, which is why I cringe every time Joel Salatin talks about something that isn’t agriculture methods.
Much like the anti-vaccination movement, people advocating for the end of food safety regulations seem to have forgotten a long, bloody history and that we only reached this place of safety because the federal government got involved. Industrial ag has spent the last century deliberately attempting to weaken the laws and agencies that place human lives above their profits, and now they’ve found allies in libertarian small farmers who only see their own profits, not the systemic risks of turning over food safety to the likes of DuPont.
We’ve seen over and over again that corporations will kill for one more penny of profit for shareholders. The article I linked at the beginning is a heart-breaking story of communities where people are dying due to a lack of safety regulations. Destroy the USDA and the FDA and versions of that story will be told in every home in America.