Yesterday I had an interesting discussion with a friend who mentioned that a food industry expert had shared with him the observation that the food companies that had made impressive steps to improve and upgrade their food safety regimens had not been doing as well in the marketplace due to the costs. My first question was, have they factored in the costs of litigation and food recalls and losses to brand image that the companies with poor food safety regimes have experienced in the peanut butter/salmonella outbreak? If the answer is in favor of rewards to those who cut corners and manufacture products that kill and sicken hundreds, then perhaps we need to have greater transparency in the marketplace and put into practice some tools so that consumers can make good choices. After all, who wants to bury their child for eating a peanut butter sandwich?
As we were talking out loud I realized that the tools are there to address many of the information asymmetries in the market. We have them for lots of companies and sectors already. Why not make a series of tools to make the food system safer? If you’re one of the smart companies that has made an investment in making your products safe it would be a worthwhile investment because your sales go down when the bad guys screw up and give us all diarrhea. Look at the peanut butter manufacturers who don’t have a salmonella issue–their sales are down 12-25% this year. Yep, your shareholders shouldn’t be too happy about what your competitors are doing. And if you’re one of the 200 companies that have had to recall your products with peanuts from the Peanut Butter Corporation of America, you might want to think through what some of the take-aways are, hint, it is not dis-investing in food safety. We don’t like to puke and sit on the toilet for spending money on your products.
So in the name of transparency and free flows of valid information to consumers, here are some things we could do to help the food industry out a bit. We already have Do the Right Thing that enabled consumers to rank company policies. What’s to prevent a “Do the Right Thing.com” for food safety where companies that post info on their food safety record and practices get scored and ranked much like Digg? When Health and Human Services created the widgets for the FDA recalls back in January-February (I need to go back and dig up the details, later) I recall something like 20 million hits were received in the first week. If you think the public isn’t concerned about food safety, think again. Every year there are over 5,300 deaths due to food poisoning–and that’s just the cases that get recorded on death certificates. How often have you had food poisoning and not gone to a doctor? We’ve seen quite a few visualizations of the financial crisis. What about new visualizations for relative risk of food poisoning with different products and companies? When we can “see” the food safety risks we will begin to reward good behavior. In the food sustainability/fair trade market we’re now seeing mechanisms to assist the consumer in seeing where products come from, the fair trade practices behind the product. Why don’t we have similar systems so people can see who is allowing salmonella or poop to get into their food? If you have a good food safety regimen in place, why not open it up? Maybe we can give you ideas in how to make it even better. The Bush Administration thought they could do policy behind closed doors. The anti-transparency regime brought us the devastation of Katrina and the Iraq War. Obama recognized the value of transparency and openness and we’ve seen quite a shift in how government is opening up. HHS/FDA are at the forefront of using social media in government. Why isn’t the food industry taking advantage of these tools and why are those on good behavior tolerating the negative impact of those who think sitting on the toilet and potentially dying from e. coli or salmonella are tolerable risks associated with eating their foods? Let’s punish the bad guys, reward the good guys. The tools are already here, what would Good Guide look like for food safety?