Solving Food Safety Problems Without Antiquated Regulation and Inspection

Director of Policy Research, Mercatus Center, George Mason University, Arlington, Virginia


The United States system of ensuring food safety (FS) is more than 100 years old and, until very recently, was the primary system designed to ensure FS. The system assumes that primarily federal regulators have the necessary knowledge to instruct food manufacturers on producing safe food, with both federal and state governments enforcing their respective regulations. While there have been notable successes in the last century — such as mandatory pasteurization for milk and other products, low acid canned food rules, and basic sanitation requirements — much of this progress was achieved in the first half of the 20th century. In the last 30 years, the incidence of foodborne disease has changed very little. Achieving a safer food supply requires a redefinition of the role of the public sector that takes advantage of new technologies. Traditionally, consumers have been forced to rely on government regulation and inspection because private manufacturers were rarely held accountable for problems. Even when contaminated foods were traced back to negligent manufacturers, outside of large national outbreaks, there was little chance that news about it would be widespread. Today, there are systems in place, based on new technology, that are becoming increasingly better at tracking FS problems to individual production plants. With this technology, we can provide producers with incentives to prevent FS problems from occurring in the first place, taking advantage of their comparative advantages. This represents a tremendous improvement over reliance on regulation and inspection and suggests that more progress can be made by improving these traceback systems.