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There Really Ought To Be A Law About Some Food Industry Practices

April 27, 2021
In his End Flap column, Senior Editor Pan Demetrakakes talks more in-depth about why certain food industry practices should be illegal.

I’m ordinarily not a big fan of making laws to address problems of any kind, especially not business problems. The law is, as they say, a blunt instrument and should be a last resort.

Perhaps the biggest problem with dealing with an issue with a new law is the old one of unintended consequences. One recent example can be seen in Mexico, where an effort to ban imports of bioengineered corn has drawn howls of protest from the country’s economically important ranching sector.

The government wants to protect domestic corn farmers against the cheap American corn that flooded the nation after NAFTA, but Mexican ranchers have come to depend on that stuff to feed their cattle. Since most American field corn is now bioengineered – well, you do the math.

But there are times and situations when new laws, blunt instruments or not, are strongly advisable, if not unavoidable.

If I had to state general principles for when new laws are called for, they would be: 1. when a given pattern of conduct is widely considered intolerable, but 2. there is a strong incentive to engage in it anyway, to the point where not doing so is liable to put an individual company at a competitive disadvantage.

Going by those rules, here are some instances of food industry conditions where I think there oughta be a law:

Minimum wage. The notion of having one at all has long been accepted, except among some hard-core libertarian types. What’s being debated now, of course, is how high it should be. I’m not going to endorse any of the numbers that are being thrown around, but I would advocate pegging it to something, like the inflation rate or a percentage of the poverty threshold. Anything would be better than the current system of “it’ll get raised whenever Congress gets around to it” – which hasn’t happened since 2009.

No slave cocoa. Anyone who is interested in the provenance of the world’s chocolate knows about how laborers, many of them children, are made to work on West African cocoa farms in conditions that amount to slavery. The major candy companies periodically “pledge” to eliminate slave labor in their cocoa supply chains, but it never gets done.

“Slave cocoa” is every bit as egregious as “blood diamonds” mined to support armed conflict in Africa. Why, then, should it not be every bit as illegal? Because it’s more popular and more widely sold? Slavery persists, not because candy companies love it, but because the first company to eschew it would be wiped out by higher supply prices. The only solution is to make them higher – and more just – for everybody.

Polluter pays. Speaking of pledges that never get fulfilled, how many times have we heard big beverage companies promising that X percent of their plastic bottles will be recycled, or recyclable, or made from recycled materials, or whatever, by whenever? The market conditions never seem to be right. Meanwhile, plastic pollution is building up to the point where plastic in the oceans will literally outweigh marine life by 2050, according to one estimate. Some of that plastic eventually finds its way into human bodies, in what can only be called “the fish’s revenge.”

I don’t have specific courses of action to suggest here, but I would like to see America shift the responsibility for funding any possible solutions from individual consumers onto the companies that fill and sell the plastic bottles in the first place. Germany and other countries long ago adopted the “polluter pays” principle, in which beverage companies and other packagers pay a fee to be applied to recycling and other cleanup-related costs. We could do with a little of that responsibility on this side of the Atlantic.

No more winking at illegal labor. This isn’t so much a call for a new law as for the ones on the books to be better enforced. When Immigration and Customs Enforcement stages a raid on a poultry plant, Latino workers get frog-marched into vans in handcuffs, but what about the people who hired them? If “she said she was legal” was no longer an acceptable excuse, I think instances of illegal labor would plummet.

Of course, it would help a lot if this country would adopt a sane immigration policy that could accommodate both foreigners in desperate need of work, and companies in desperate need of labor. But I guess that’s too much to expect.

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