What Uber Can Teach Us About Food Safety

Founder’s Note: Regular Digest readers know how passionate we are about knowing where our food comes from. So Joel Salatin’s idea for better transparency in the food business certainly got us nodding along. Take a look at what he proposes below, and be sure to let us know your thoughts at mailbag@manwardpress.com.

“Uberization” is a new word in the dictionary, and it illustrates a groundbreaking opportunity for freedom.

I could use many examples, but because I’m a direct-market farmer, I’ll stick to its application in food safety regulations.

Questioning food safety regulations is akin to demonizing baseball and apple pie in modern American culture.

Most people assume that if I suggest reducing government food oversight, I want to see people sickened with foodborne illnesses. And that I naively assume businesses are honest and trustworthy.

A System of Intrigue

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was created in 1908 in response to the uproar over Upton Sinclair’s expose The Jungle. That 1906 book, which documented the abuses of the meat industry generally but slaughterhouses specifically, created such a stir that people quit buying from the big brands and returned to their neighborhood butchers.

President Teddy Roosevelt acquiesced to the demands of the big meat packers and consumer-protection advocates in forming the agency.

At face value, the FSIS was an oversight agency that would create protocols and put regulators in slaughter facilities.

But this new inspection system created a massive bureaucracy that determined what could or could not enter the marketplace.

Most people believe the FSIS put some sort of empirical testing procedure in place. While certainly dirty plants existed, what actually developed was a highly political big-boy-favored system of intrigue and subjective compliance requirements. Some inspectors were honest, and others were not. The whole system assumed that government agents were more honest than businesses.

Although I don’t think the FSIS was ever necessary, I’ve found in debating the issue that’s a hard sell.

The way to get a regular person nodding is to assume that things were pretty bad in 1906 and Roosevelt was probably justified to inject federal regulators into these meat-processing facilities.

For the sake of argument, I’ll not debate that point.

What’s important to understand is the cultural context of the time.

Fear and Mistrust

The industrial revolution was in full swing. The automobile was brand new, as Henry Ford tinkered with his idea.

As food industrialized – prior to good sanitation, microscopes and pathogen testing – like most large-scale businesses, the system became opaque. Trade secrets and internal transgressions were easier to protect when prying eyes did not enter the premises.

Security fences, guard towers and limited access created opaqueness in the marketplace.

Opaqueness creates fear. “What are they doing in there?” becomes a common question from neighbors and even customers.

Fear leads to mistrust, and mistrust leads to cries for government scrutiny. This progression follows like hand in glove.

By the 1950s, the transition to an opaque food system was complete. Food science created everything from Twinkies to Red Dye No. 29.

High-fructose corn syrup, squeezable cheese, TV dinners and an assumption that breastfeeding was barbaric permeated the culture. The WWII victory gardens gave way to supermarkets and massive distribution networks.

In 1946, the average morsel of food in America traveled 40 miles. Today it’s 1,500. With distance came additional opaqueness.

The historical butcher, baker and candlestick maker, imbedded in a town and held accountable with neighborhood gossip and prying eyes, gave way to massive industrial processing facilities and long-distance transportation.

The average person was scared to death of this nameless, faceless, placeless product on supermarket shelves.

Real-Time Transparency

Then an amazing thing happened: Uber. (Don’t worry… I’m going to connect the dots.)

Uber circumvented all the ride-service regulations, vetting, background checks on drivers and regulatory codes of conduct. With an easy feedback loop on both driver and rider, Uber created a self-vetting, self-regulating option in a highly regulated marketplace.

Who would have thought just 20 years ago that you would be traveling to a foreign city and jumping into a car with a total stranger without any regulatory oversight? Is the car roadworthy? Is the driver on the up-and-up? Is the fare honest? Will he take you the best route? Are you being kidnapped?

These and many more questions receive assurances not from a bureaucrat but from a newly created and newly empowered village voice: real-time feedback loops.

Uber protects its brand by watching these self-policing audits and electing to dismiss drivers and riders to keep the system functional. This real-time, transparent system has completely disrupted the chauffeur industry.

And it all happened without a government agency.

The New Village Voice

Now back to food inspection.

Arguably, an industrial food system needed an industrial oversight system – the FSIS. We could posit that an industrial taxi system needed an industrial regulatory structure.

All of this developed in response to the butcher, baker and candlestick maker of yore being replaced with industrial-scaled and industrial-modeled systems.

Just like Uber created a safe place for voluntary consenting adults to participate in ride-sharing, Uberization of the food system could create a safe place for folks to buy and sell food without government oversight.

The notion that the only way for integrity to be ensured between buyer and seller is for a bureaucrat to step into the middle of consensual adult transactions is absurd.

Too often the first response to a problem is “We need government intervention.”

That should always be the last solution.

We can – and should – exhaust a lot of options before asking for government intervention.

I would suggest that at least for individual producer-consumer food transactions, we now have a village voice commensurate with yesteryear’s neighborhood gossip and prying eyes.

It’s called the internet. It’s called social media. It’s called real-time ratings, and even rantings, about product quality and service. The internet brings transactions with the self-regulating village butcher, baker and candlestick maker back to integrity.

What small food business could dare risk being crucified on the internet?

That’s a much better safety program than a politicized, subjective government agency.

Uberization is one of the best freedom tools in our modern arsenal. We should use it and end the archaic industrial-era bureaucracy.

Bring the village voice back… and use it.

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