Commons-Produced Safety Commission?

Rick Perlstein has recently described the “Third Worlding of America’s food safety system.” Consumer product safety is not faring much better, and we’re now reaping the consequences of laissez-faire. Though at least the Senate has has tried to respond to these developments, other alternatives are also being explored. The massive meat recall suggests one new approach: a citizen-media alliance to name and shame the worst threats to public safety.

The most widespread meat problem in the U.S. was not detected by the Department of Agriculture–and given that agency’s mandate to promote meat eating, that’s not necessarily surprising. Rather, it was the Humane Society that discovered the processing of “downer cows” and publicized it:

Interviewer: The Humane Society of The United States doesn’t necessarily have a dog in the food supply protection fight, but nonetheless, that is the other aspect of this story which made it so take off, the threat to not just consumers but to child consumers because of where this meat was headed.

President of US Humane Society: Without question. [The company involved] was the number two supplier to the National School Lunch Program. I think that one of the factors here is the relevance of this story to our daily lives. Most Americans eat meat. They want to know that the product is not adulterated and they want to believe that the animals are not abused during the production, transport or slaughter process.

The story reminded me a bit of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which “aimed for the public’s heart and hit it in the stomach.”

Can a peer or commons-produced consumer safety system work? I have my doubts. As the Humane Society president puts it, for most stories in his field, troubing behavior “goes on every day and the media pay attention to it episodically.” In other words, if Britney went to rehab the day of the meat recall story, it could easily have been bumped off the front page and barely anyone would have heard of it. And can any reader recall the name of the company named and shamed? (Answer beneath the fold.)

We may dream that self-organizing swarms of fact-finders will uncover wrongdoing, but they’re scarcely a deterrent when their effect is so erratic. The answer here lies less in bottom-up, crowdsourced exposes than in top-down mandates that level the competitive playing field. In our market-driven economy, it must not merely be possibly shameful to produce adulterated or dangerous products, but reliably unprofitable.

Exposed company: Hallmark/Westland Meat Company.

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