Food Safety Regulations Aren’t Really About Safety

Founder’s Note: Today we continue with Joel Salatin’s deep dive into the hypocrisy surrounding our nation’s food safety regulations. You don’t have to run a farm to recognize the crazy inconsistencies in how the government treats food versus illicit drugs. Check out Joel’s thoughts below, and send us yours at mailbag@manwardpress.


Most people assume food safety regulations are really about food safety.

It is certainly a reasonable assumption. But in truth, there is much more going on here.

No, it’s not a conspiracy. But it is inconsistency at best… and politics at worst.

Let’s dive in.

Wild deer can have a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a first cousin of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, otherwise known as mad cow. You can go out and shoot a deer on a 70-degree fall day, drag it a mile through the squirrel dung, sticks and rocks, and place it prominently on the hood of your Blazer to parade it through the streets of town in the blazing afternoon sun.

Nobody checks it for mad deer. Nobody checks it for bacteria, temperature or sanitation.

You can take that deer home, pull it up in a tree in the backyard, let it hang a week under roosting birds and buzzing insects, then cut it up and feed it to your children and all their friends.

All of this is blessed by government agencies. In fact, in most places you can do this multiple times throughout the hunting season, taking several deer with different weapons. You can give the meat away… but you can’t sell it. (We’ll come back to this later.)

You can also take a backyard-raised bovine, wait for an appropriate-temperatured day, dress it out, spray it down for cleanliness, cut it up and feed it to your children and neighbors. In fact, if you gave away the meat, you’d be considered a benevolent person, a kind and charitable individual.

But if you sell 1 pound of it, you’re a criminal.

Where Things Get Weird

In these two instances, criminalization kicks in at selling, not eating. My question is this: What is it about trading money for something that suddenly makes it a hazardous substance?

In the drug war, it’s not okay to give drugs away. And it’s not okay to take them for yourself either. If you want to take cocaine in your own house, that’s not okay.

I won’t go into my disdain for the drug war in this column because that’s not my objective right now. Just realize that with other hazardous substances, the prohibition is on both buyer and seller and includes both use and sales.

In other words, if it’s inherently hurtful and dangerous, the prohibitions are consistent: acquisition, use, sale.

But in food, this is not the case. If you can buy venison from that neighbor or some ground beef from that do-it-yourself neighbor, fine. The only one in jeopardy is the seller; acquisition is fine. And if you do acquire it from an illegal source, it’s completely legal to use it and feed it to your kids.

In food, the only prohibition is on the seller.

I do not question the intent or sincerity of the folks who developed and continue to develop our food safety laws. I know they mean well. But the implementation gets weird, as shown above.

I wrote a book detailing some of these run-ins titled Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal. Interestingly, I’ve had countless small-business folks, from plumbers and electricians to doctors and accountants, come up to me and say, “I could write that book about my business.”

I know food is not the only sector where this happens; it just happens to be the one I know about. And it’s one that affects people more universally than the others.

Before anyone thinks I’m an anarchist, I do not argue for zero government oversight in food. While my personal libertarian bias tends to lean that way, I find it futile to argue for blanket nonintervention. What I do argue for is a place for personal choice.

“Two Completely Different Expectations”

The best elected official I ever saw actually go to bat for voluntary food choice among consenting adults was a liberal Democrat in our Virginia House of Delegates. In arguing for a blanket exemption on direct producer-consumer food commerce, he brought in a box of items he’d purchased from his church bazaar the previous week. He set that box up on the podium in a Senate committee hearing. Then he set another box alongside it.

From one, he pulled a homemade duck on a stick. From the other, he pulled a similar toy he’d purchased from Walmart, made in China.

“I have two completely different expectations from these two toys,” he said. “I don’t expect fair labor standards, consumer protection regulations and other elements to have been brought to bear on this toy I bought from Jim Cox at our church bazaar.” Turning to the other toy, he said he had all those expectations since it was imported from China and purchased from a large retailer.

He repeated this procedure with a hand-knitted scarf versus one imported from Pakistan and sold at T.J. Maxx. Then he picked up a jar of homemade strawberry jam and next to it placed the industrial counterpart (Smucker’s purchased at Kroger).

With each comparison, he reiterated the refrain: “I have completely different expectations about the provenance, background and government oversight of these two products.”

I’ve never forgotten his eloquent appeal for freedom to offer different products to folks who have different expectations. His bill failed, of course. But I’ve never forgotten the presentation.

My conclusion from this experience and many others is that the ultimate goal of food safety regulations is not food safety, but defining what’s available in the marketplace. This item can be sold… That one can’t. It’s that simple.

It has nothing to do with risk or safety. It’s simply an arbitrary decision by society to limit choice in the marketplace. Collectively, by voting for politicians who grant this kind of authority to bureaucrats, we citizens have limited our options in this way. And in doing so, we have limited entrepreneurship and innovation.

I’ll write about that next week.

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