A Level Playing Field Kills Food Innovation and Choice

Founder’s Note: What’s the secret to innovation and creativity? As Joel Salatin shows below, it’s about not having a one-size-fits-all approach to regulation. But for the food industry, that flexibility is nowhere to be found. Read on to see why that sort of tyranny denies all of us the freedom of choice. And let us know your thoughts at mailbag@manwardpress.com.

Last week, I wrote about food safety not really being about food safety but rather about defining what’s available in the marketplace.

Consumer safety market access advocates generally tout food safety regulations as a way to “level the playing field.”

In other words, if society (i.e., bureaucracy) had one set of regulations for chicken from a mega-industrial facility and another set for chicken from a pastured backyard operation, it would be unfair.

But demanding that the backyard outfit adhere to the same infrastructure and record-keeping requirements as the mega-sized outfit is clearly unfair to the smaller operator.

It’s like saying in order to play football, you can do so only in a 100,000-seat stadium, wearing $2,000 protective gear and on a certified field marked to official specifications.

While you could argue that such a requirement would level the playing field, it would certainly prohibit lots of folks from playing.

Sunday afternoon pickup games in the backyard would be forbidden.

What if everyone playing in the backyard agreed that the field didn’t have to be regulation size and they’d take their chances with injuries?

No. Forbidden.

Any reasonable person would consider such a law ridiculous and argue for exemptions.

Professional athletes are in a totally different context from backyarders. They’re playing for careers and empires (their employers).

The pickup guys are just out having fun. They’re two extremely different games.

That’s the point food safety regulators are ignoring.

The Exceptions to the Rule

Other industries are afforded exemptions based on scale routinely. These are critical to market entry for startups.

For example, most states allow someone to keep one to three children in a private home without submitting to fire, dietary and infrastructure (building code) requirements.

Why? Reason suggests that if a person is caring for only a couple of children, their level of supervision is high and the relationship with client parents is closer, or more personal. (You don’t leave little Amy with just anyone.)

Big daycare centers have a plethora of rules and regulations because clients don’t know the staff and staff members don’t know the children.

In these nameless, faceless, industrial-scale centers, bureaucrats require paperwork and all sorts of vetting in lieu of parental knowledge.

The acquaintance down the street who keeps a couple of kids is a totally different ballgame and hence doesn’t need the same rules.

Profound Differences

A similar exemption exists for elder care. Again, three seems to be the magic number.

My wife’s grandmother, who lived to 100 years and 6 months, spent her final few years in two different facilities.

After she refused our offer to keep her (“Your grandfather and I promised each other we wouldn’t be burdens to our families”), we placed her in an assisted living facility. It was a regular accredited institution… and we constantly had issues with her care there.

Finally, we found a lady who kept three folks in her own private home. She was a registered nurse and launched this little enterprise in order to stay home with her children.

Her doting care over Grandma was epic. I think we received calls about things before Grandma even knew she had issues. It was wonderful.

Visiting times were not rigid; it was quiet and personal.

The difference between the two places was profound. Small can be beautiful, indeed.

Grandma didn’t have to wear an armband for identification. The caregiver knew the foods that set well with her and the ones that didn’t. We didn’t have to check in or out when we went to visit.

It was a totally different situation and completely free of government regulations.

Embryonic Prototypes

The problem is our country has precious little flexibility like this in the food space.

I can’t sell 1 pound of sausage from a pig unless it goes to an approved facility.

I can’t sell 1 pound of cheese unless I have licensed and inspected infrastructure, HACCP (hazardous analysis and critical control point) plans and paperwork up the wazoo.

Requiring a $2,000 thermometer for smoking meat is nothing if you’re doing it in tractor trailer-sized facilities.

But if you’re doing it in a 5-gallon bucket, it’s a complete opportunity stopper.

These two scales are completely different games. How do you know whether you’ll even like smoking meat or making cheese if you can’t experiment with small quantities?

All innovation needs embryonic prototypes.

The problem with nonscalable regulations is that they require the product idea to be big at launch to cover all the capital-intensive overheads: infrastructure and licensing.

If a dream has to be birthed big, chances are it’ll be stillborn. A baby too big to be birthed is not conducive to success.

Let’s take a look at one final example.

Choice Denied

Imagine eBay with licensing. Can you imagine that if, in order to place an item for sale on eBay, you had to be a certified computer operator? And you had to have a certificate of compliance for your office setup?

I mean, we wouldn’t want you getting a splinter in your rear end from jumping up on that first bid and catching yourself on a makeshift plywood desk.

And how about that cobweb of electrical cords underneath your computer station? You’d have to get a certified electrical permit before submitting an item to eBay.

I could go on in this vein, but you get the picture.

Here’s the question: If all these requirements were legislated, would we have eBay?

Of course not.

And therein lies the point of this essay.

Innovation and choice require microscale market access. When regulations are prejudicial to small-scale operators, it creates insurmountable hurdles for trial market access. And it denies all of us the entrepreneurial choice we could otherwise enjoy.

And it denies society the collective tinkering antidotes for all the maladies that currently plague us.

That is why we need to implement scale exemptions for all food, from raw milk and cheese to pepperoni and succotash.

If we did, the innovation explosion, both for entrepreneurs and buyers, would bring to the table unimaginable solutions to food concerns.

We’ve tried food access by tyranny.

How about food access by freedom?

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