What Has the Government Done To Our Food?

The USDA can make a great superhero showing. They can swoop in and stop contaminated food from getting distributed and they can get food recalls underway.

But this is somewhat misleading. There is a case to be made that the USDA’s job is protecting us from the damage that they cause in the first place.

Baylen Linnekin described a recent example at Reason.com:

Early last month, the USDA shuttered the lone slaughterhouse in Northern California, Rancho Feeding Corp. in Petaluma, for unspecified violations, and ordered a staggering 8.7 million pounds of beef processed there in 2013 to be recalled. While the USDA has been tight-lipped on the reasons for the shutdown, word leaked late last month that the plant had been closed because it processed some cattle that were suffering from cancer.

If true, the USDA action makes sense on its face. Cancer is an adulterant and shouldn’t be in the food supply.

OK… but wait. Are we supposed to believe that all 8.7 million pounds of beef was all cancerous? That would entail a huge cancer plague among the bovines before they were slaughtered.

No, what probably happened is that, at the big slaughterhouse, a few cancerous cattle got mixed in. But there was no way to track down the tainted parts, so all the beef that was derived from that slaughterhouse had to be destroyed.

But isn’t that somewhat predictable? Does it really make sense to have all that livestock slaughtered in the same place?

The USDA

is responsible for channeling animals from farmers and ranchers of all sorts—from the smallest grassfed beef farmer to his largest competitor—into a limited number of USDA-approved slaughterhouses. According to USDA data, California has just four approved slaughterhouses. Texas has but one. Many states have none.

So I guess if you trusted the USDA to always get it right, then it might be worth going this route. But when such a system fails it can only fail big. And there are reasons not to trust the USDA.

The Rancho recall is part of a much larger problem that’s existed for decades in the USDA inspection process.

In 2007, USDA officials were forced to admit to Congress that for at least 30 years, “U.S. inspectors visited 250 meat processing plants as rarely as once every two weeks despite federal law requiring daily inspection.”

What’s the alternative? Without this USDA stranglehold, local abattoirs could flourish, recalls like the one in California would become less common, and those that do occur would have a much smaller impact on farmers, consumers, and the food supply.

That conclusion would make sense no matter how great the USDA was at providing its required “services.” But if they can’t even follow the laws that empower them to control the food supply, why should all farmers have to ship their steers off to questionable slaughterhouse?

Farmers already have incentive to provide safe food. Most government bureaucracies, however, demand very little accountability.

I think my food will be safer coming through the market than through the USDA.