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The Cultural Contradictions Of Food Safety

One of our most emailed pieces is called Tale of Two Buyers and it is a little story that speaks to the contradictions, both of a cultural and financial incentive variety, at the heart of our food safety problems. But these dilemmas, between profit maximization and food safety, do not only apply to buyers.

Toward the end of the spinach/E. coli crisis we were told the story of a grower, in the Salinas valley, who was growing a crop that was ready for harvest. The firm that was going to harvest the crop and buy it from the farmer sent in its machinery to do the job. The team worked all day and, as night fell, was almost done with only a small portion of the field left unharvested.

They withdrew most of the equipment just leaving what would be needed to harvest the small remainder of the crop the following day.

During the course of the night a large herd of cows somehow infiltrated the field. It was a substantial number and they were obviously defecating, belching and doing the things that cows do — things that might spread E.coli 0157:H7.

The harvesting company was a large organization and was very sensitized to food safety issues by all the news of the spinach/E. coli crisis.

As such they saw the cows, immediately withdrew their equipment and told the farmer to disc the crop under.

Then, a few days later, the farmer called the company that had halted harvesting and asked a question:

“Listen,” said the farmer “I never did disc that spinach and, just now, I got a call from another buyer who had been driving by and was looking to buy it. Any reason I can’t sell it to him?”

Of course there was a reason and he was advised not to sell it. Supposedly he didn’t but who really knows?

Now it is easy to be morally righteous and note that there was a risk of E. coli 0157:H7 contamination and that the farmer was morally obligated to disc the crop.

Yet that is easy for anyone else to say. For a farmer, that crop is his money, it is his livelihood. Maybe it pays his kid’s tuition or the mortgage on the farm or buys medicine for his sick wife. Who knows?

Yet it seems that it is expecting too much virtue from people to depend on people abandoning their money in the field on the basis of a hypothetical risk.

Obviously one answer is that if nobody will buy a crop leftover inexplicably in a field, then the moral hazard is moot.

It is also possible to contract with people on such a basis that they have no incentive to cover-up.

Yet I keep thinking that if that farmer had only gone out to that field two hours before the harvesting crew arrived, he probably would have gotten rid of the cows and sold his crop and, it would never show in any records or audits. If nothing went wrong, which is highly likely, the farmer would feel vindicated.

Food safety is a tough one for an industry because 99.9% of the time we don’t get paid for food safety so it is difficult to pay buyers or farmers for doing the right thing.

Yet it is in resolving these perverse financial incentives to take food safety risks that the real long term improvements in food safety will really be found.

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