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Health, Science, Environment

Commentary: Which came first, the chicken or the salmonella?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 2, 2010 - Steve Chapman is worried about your eggs. He's a featured columnist for the Chicago Tribune -- a sort of Windy City epigone of Bill McClellan -- who devoted his Aug. 29 oped piece to the recent recall of salmonella-infected eggs.

To the extent that this recall was national in scope and the offending bacterium makes its victims violently ill; posing a real -- albeit remote -- risk of death, you might think that he would advocate on behalf of greater public scrutiny of the food industry. You would be wrong.

No, Chapman is not unduly concerned with the welfare of your gastro-intestinal tract. Noting that under normal circumstances, Americans experience about 175,000 cases of food poisoning from this source each year, he cheerfully notes that translates to about 1 in every 10,000 eggs, thus laying favorable odds that you'll survive breakfast.

What worries Steve is that the current outbreak, which spans a 10-state region from Illinois to Montana, will be used as an excuse to expand the regulatory authority of the Food and Drug Administration. Such a governmental overreach would further hamper the efficiency of the free market which, it turns out, is better able to resolve the problem anyway.

To demonstrate the simplistic beauty of market forces, Chapman cites historical precedent. Lest I be accused of hyperbole, I quote him verbatim:

"In 1971, a New York man died of botulism after eating a can of Bon Vivant soup. If you've never heard of Bon Vivant soup, there's a simple explanation: In no time at all, the company was bankrupt and the brand was as defunct as William McKinley."

With all due respect to the memory of President McKinley -- who, incidentally, became defunct by getting assassinated -- this free-market exercise has a couple of problems, not the least of which is the poor chump who opted for a quick, cheap lunch and wound up planted in the marble orchard for his efforts. At least he departed this mortal coil secure in the knowledge that he'd left his loved ones a decent law suit to prosecute.

But if not for the FDA or an equivalent government authority, who would have made the connection between the untimely death and a bowl of soup? How many other cans of infected soup would have to be consumed and how many other people would have to die before somebody made that association?

In the present outbreak, the salmonella bacteria have a 12- to 72-hour incubation period before symptoms become manifest. So, some sucker in Illinois eats a bad egg on Monday, then gets sick on Thursday. Between bouts of extreme fever, severe diarrhea and projectile vomiting, he has to analyze everything he's eaten in past three days to isolate the probable culprit.

In the unlikely event that he figures out that Monday's egg begat Thursday's miseries, how's he supposed to learn that there's a guy in Montana sharing his ordeal? And because the infected eggs were marketed under various brand names, who's going to make the connection between Happy Hen Eggs, Rooster Farm Eggs and the unsanitary mass-production egg farm that supplied them both? Consumers will naturally avoid tainted food, but first they have to realize there's a problem.

Over a decade ago, Great Britain experienced a similar salmonella outbreak in its egg supply. While life can never be made completely safe, the British government apparently thought that eating an omelet should be less risky than, say, sky-diving. It subsequently required egg producers to vaccinate their hens.

How did this stifling intrusion into the free market work out? The infection rate dropped by more than 96 percent at the cost of about one cent per dozen eggs. Remember that 175,000 annual caseload in America that Chapman bragged about? Last year in the United Kingdom, there were precisely 581 reported cases of salmonella poisoning.

Deregulation is based on the extraordinary misconception that a market fueled by greed will somehow provide for the common good. Former financial genius Alan Greenspan was shocked -- shocked, I say -- to learn that bankers would act against their own enlightened self-interest by jeopardizing the long-term stability of their institutions on behalf of immediate profit. Indeed, the great banking collapse of 2008 was made possible by repeal of New Deal-era regulations that were put in place to avoid just such a catastrophe.

Free marketeers are quick to dismiss government regulation as self-defeating. Chapman, for instance, points out that because the FDA failed to prevent the salmonella outbreak, its workforce will be increased -- in effect, the government rewards failure. There's an appealing irony in that observation but there's also an alternate explanation: Perhaps if the agency hadn't been scaled back and hand-cuffed during the free-wheeling Bush years, the outbreak might never have occurred in the first place.

Any enterprise can be over-regulated, robbing it of spontaneity and innovation. But no sensible person would argue that the NFL should do away with referees because penalties slow the pace of the game.

In the last analysis, rules are passed in response to perceived need. That's why there are so many boating laws at the Lake of the Ozarks and so few in Death Valley. And though they can be cumbersome, regulations can enhance practical freedom by minimizing the chances of debilitating disaster.

After all, when you're heaving into the porcelain throne, it's difficult to fully appreciate the glories of the free market.

M.W.Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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