One of the things I hate most about the modern world is that it must constantly rearrange itself to account for the worst among us. One wretch tries to smuggle a bomb aboard an airplane in his shoe, and everyone else is forever after condemned to removing shoes in airport security lines.
That thought often occurs to me when I contemplate regulations that govern food manufacturing, especially when it comes to safety. Many of them are designed to stop the worst actors from acting badly.
This came to mind again with the controversy over the recent decisions to re-impose line speed limits on chicken and pork processing plants. Shortly after Joe Biden took office, the USDA withdrew a pending rule, proposed by the Trump administration, that would have increased speed limits on poultry processing lines from 140 birds per minute to 175. A few months afterward, a federal judge invalidated another Trump-era rule (a fully realized one, not a proposal) that, in effect, removed line speed limits from pork plants; it is thought at press time that the USDA under Biden will not appeal.
The rationale for removing line-speed limits is that, with the right kind of protocols and tests in place, product safety can be assured without them. In other words, it’s based on trust; we have to believe that a processor will follow its own procedures and take the proper steps, including discarding product, if something goes wrong.
This trend started decades ago with the advent of HACCP – the idea that critical control points (CCP) could be identified through hazard analysis (HA) and reliably monitored, thereby virtually eliminating food safety hazards.
HACCP is now generally accepted in the industry, to the point where it can be hard to remember how controversial it was during its advent in the 1990s – especially in meat and poultry processing. HACCP was originally implemented in meat plants as a way to get by with fewer USDA inspectors. It played into two strong political impulses: saving tax money and reducing regulation.
The rationale behind the Trump rule removing line limits from pork plants was similar. That rule change, called the New Swine Inspection System, was predicated on plants maintaining proper sanitation and testing procedures to guard against fecal contamination. It also, just as with the original HACCP regulations, allowed companies to replace USDA inspectors with their own for certain functions.
Regulations that allow processors to, in effect, be their own safety inspectors are based on a form of the “rational actor” imperative. Companies, so the thinking goes, have such a strong incentive not to sicken or kill consumers with tainted product that they can be trusted to take the necessary safeguards without government inspectors looking over their shoulders.
This sounds logical, but there are a few problems.
Objectivity is the first one. Yes, in theory, company “inspectors” are motivated by the desire to put out safe product. In the real world, though, people are motivated by paychecks. If there’s a decision to be made that could potentially cost the company money, especially if it’s a borderline decision, a company employee will have a strong incentive to decide the opposite.
Another problem is that “safety” doesn’t just mean product safety. The New Swine Inspection System was overturned because pork plant workers sued, charging that higher line speeds put them at risk of repetitive motion injuries and accidents.
Now, the same “rational actor” principle that theoretically incentivizes product safety should also hold for worker safety; after all, no one wants to injure their employees any more than they want to poison their customers. But the practical application, and benefit, of this principle is even murkier for workers than it is for consumers.
There are infinite gradations of physical stress between comfortable and intolerable, and the temptation will be ever-present to push employees up the scale if it increases throughput. Workers should not have to undergo crippling injuries or accidental slashing to prove that a line is running too fast.
Which leads us to the overarching problem with self-regulation: Some people simply can’t be trusted.
Bad actors, alas, will always be with us. Whether it’s a baby food company selling dyed sugared water as fruit juice or a peanut-butter processor throwing away salmonella test results, there will always be someone out there with the will and the motivation to cheat.
They are why we need regulations, and people to enforce them. As Ronald Reagan kept telling Mikhail Gorbachev during arms-reduction talks: “Trust, but verify.”