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.]