More meals you can’t have

Commenting on the previous post, Jeff says:

Good post. I find it interesting that the writer didn’t call for a removal of regulations on meat processing, just a reinvention of those regulations in order to incorporate different methods of keeping meat bacteria-free. Do you agree with this, or do you believe that the maintenance of any food-processing regulations will continue to hamstring (heh) chefs like Hoffman?

If you follow the trackback from The Agitator, Radley waxes a bit more philosophical on a libertarian approach to food safety regulation in restaurants. For the most part I agree with him, especially regarding how private certification would be more tolerant of alternative practices.

I actually think branding of restaurants, especially of chains, would play a greater role in promoting food safety than certifying agencies would. One bad news story is enough to ruin a restaurant’s reputation and scare off potential customers. That said, I’m not totally convinced that private certification would perform better than government inspection in all cases. Low profile establishments that cater primarily to transient customers — such as by a hotel, airport, highway, or tourist spot — might find it worth their while to skimp on safety. Long-term customer loss wouldn’t be a problem and liability for sickness could be difficult to prove in court.

A hardcore libertarian would probably reply that customers could look in the window for the seal of a certifying agency they trust, but why would they? If the private certification system is working well, food safety should be far in the back of customers’ minds, just as it is now under government regulation.

On the other hand, it’s unfair to compare an imagined, imperfect free market system to an imagined, perfect government system. Doubtless lots of restaurants currently get away with things that are technically “unsafe.” I suspect that some of them are among the dives I enjoy eating at.

One also has to account for the unseen costs of regulation. Excessive government rules raise the costs of opening and maintaining a business. How many entrepreneurs are thwarted by these costs, their unique offerings never making it to market?

In general, I’m more willing to tolerate regulation where transparency is low. There is enough lack of transparency as to what goes on in the kitchens of restaurants that I don’t consider the comparative merits of private versus government food safety regulation a pressing issue. What I do consider important is that restaurants and customers have the right to opt out of standard regulations. Traditional arts, like the dry meat curing in the previous post, ought to be allowed. Innovative cooking, such as the sous vide technique NYC inspectors attacked last year, should also be legal. The same with the raw milk cheeses Americans are currently unable to buy. Rather than trying to craft alternative regulations, I’d be content with a simple menu disclaimer alerting customers that the practices of the restaurant are not in accordance with standard regulations. Menu warnings don’t prevent diners from ordering rare meats and sushi, so I doubt they’d do any harm in these cases, either. Of course, it would be best if regulators were just more open to artisinal and innovative practices.

Lest all this sound like the whinings of an elitist libertarian foodie, be sure to check out today’s WaPo article headlined “Freshly baked handouts forbidden in Fairfax.” Regulators there are cracking down on do-gooding churches and home cooks who make homemade meals for the area’s homeless. Since those kitchens aren’t inspected by the Health Department and up to code, it’s illegal for them to serve food to the public. Homeless folks seeking shelter this Christmas in Fairfax may not get a good meal, but at least they’ll know their food was prepared in a facilty with a stainless steel three compartment sink.

[Thanks to Chad for the link.]


8 thoughts on “More meals you can’t have”

  1. If menu disclaimers were all it took, every restaurant would soon have a disclaimer of that sort. We would see them everywhere we could possibly choose to eat, meaning that we would have no effective choice in whether or not we ate at establishments the government hadn’t approved.

  2. I’m not sure I follow your reasoning. I don’t mean that such a disclaimer would remove liability in cases of negligence. And presumably a restaurant would provide some explanation for why they are operating outside of normal procedures. They’d essentially be saying to customers that the things they do are considered unsafe by relevant authorities. Without a good argument for why they’re doing so, I think that would be a big turn off for customers.

    For example, I’d gladly eat at a place making it’s own artisinal cured meats outside of current regulations. But if I walk into a hamburger joint that disclaims accordance with the health code, I’m probably turning right around and walking out.

  3. Good WaPo link. I think there’s some kind of goofy reg in AZ now that makes it illegal for elementary school kids to bring in a homemade cake or muffins for their birthdays. Or something stupid like that.

  4. also, thanks for the response 🙂

    It seems that under your second system, the opt-out disclaimers would almost have to be regulated as well. It’s okay to opt out of the sous-vide regulation but probably not okay to opt out of the clean-counter regulation.

    I figure it would just be easier to make sure the regulations are malleable – that is, that they can be easily amended to include “new” cooking techniques. That way, the regulatory robustness of the system could be maintained while allowing for innovation.

    Incidentally, is it now illegal for me to have a dinner party at my house with a home-cooked main course? Will the government be forced to save my guests from the dangers of deregulated dal?

  5. I think the tricky question isn’t so much what deviations ought to be allowed, but what counts as informed consent. As a matter of freedom of contract, I think people ought to be able to opt of the dirty counter rule if they really want to for some reason, but in the cases of really bizarre exemptions clearer communication may be needed than in run of the mill menu disclaimers. Sorting out those distinctions would be tough.

  6. The Bush Administration continues to wiretap citizens’ phone lines without a warrant, and you’re talking about meat regulations.

    I don’t mean to generalize, but you and every other libertarian in the country have absolutely no perspective on anything whatsoever. Ever.

  7. It’s called comparative advantage, furry. There’s lots of writers, libertarians included, covering the Bush administration’s civil liberties violations. I appreciate what they do and encourage others to keep up with the issue, but I have no special expertise in the subject. Food, on the other hand, I know.

    I like it when people read my blog and come to me for libertarian opinions on stuff. But frankly, if you’re relying on Eternal Recurrence to tell you that Bush isn’t the best president ever, you might want to start checking out some more reputable news sources.

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