Are Americans Begging for Some Food Police?

A recent study of Americans’ food ideologies published online by the journal Food Policy caught our eye. Apparently, despite visceral revulsion at soda taxes and big-drink bans, we’re supposedly ready to embrace big government in our food with open arms. To use the study’s phrase: “Most people were ‘food statists,’ desiring more food and agricultural regulation.” This held even for self-described libertarians and conservatives generally opposed to regulation.

That prompted a Reason magazine contributor to interview the study’s author, Oklahoma State University economics professor Jayson Lusk, who noted that much of the desire for more regulation had to do with desires for food safety. Lusk pointed a finger squarely at activists for creating a false picture of the American food system:

More fundamentally, however, I think we have a food culture (think Michael Pollan, Oprah Winfrey, or Mark Bittman) that has promoted mistrust in modern food and agriculture, which has produced a misleading belief about the state of food in America. Our food system has never been safer or higher quality but this is not the image most people have in mind when they think about our modern food system.

Like plane crashes, major foodborne illness outbreaks are rare. So when one happens, it makes news. Safe landings and safe food don’t make news. It comes down to (often-skewed) risk perception, and food issues are no different.

The ironic thing is that that sentimentalism can in fact be less safe than modern production. Consider the case of organic free-range eggs, advocated by Pollan. While Pollan claimed that he just wanted eggs from chickens raised like in the old days, “before we had to worry about salmonella,” modern practices are linked with declines in illness rates. And despite the protestations of the Humane Society of the United States—a vegan advocacy group that deceptively raises money with dogs and cats while shortchanging pet shelters—a study in in the journal Poultry Science found that “The system with the lowest chance of infection was the cage system with wet manure.”

There’s a glimmer of hope in the interview, though. When people cut through the activist spin, Lusk said that research finds that “people are much less supportive of regulation when they are informed of the costs.” Pastoral images are nice, but people won’t pay a premium on their food to have them.

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