Krugman gets a Rotten Tomato

Paul Krugman is attacking Milton Friedman (again) for rotten tomatoes.  Here’s Krugman in 2007:

These are anxious days at the lunch table. For all you know, there
may be E. coli on your spinach, salmonella in your peanut butter and
melamine in your pet’s food and, because it was in the feed, in your
chicken sandwich.

Who’s responsible for the new fear of eating?
Some blame globalization; some blame food-producing corporations; some
blame the Bush administration. But I blame Milton Friedman.

…Without question, America’s food safety system has degenerated over the past six years.

and here he is today repeating himself:

Lately, however, there always
seems to be at least one food-safety crisis in the headlines – tainted
spinach, poisonous peanut butter and, currently, the attack of the
killer tomatoes.

How did America find itself back in The Jungle?

I was curious so I collected data from the Center for Disease Control on Foodborne Disease Outbreaks from 1998-2006.   The data only go back to 1998 because in that year the CDC changed its surveillance system creating a discontinuity but note that we are covering a chunk of the Clinton years and are well within the time frame over which Krugman says the safety system has degenerated.  Here’s the result:


What we see is a lot of variability from year to year but a net downward trend.  You can also look at cases per year which are more variable but also show a net downward trend.  No evidence whatsoever that we are back "in The Jungle."


Interesting. I'd like to hear more about the other variables you included for controls and the t-statistics, if it's not too much trouble.

Never let the facts get in the way of a good socialist rant. ;-)

Brian: they are probably in the link. Doesn't look like Alex produced the graph himself. As we say at /., RTFA. :)

No controls - just the raw data by year. I produced the graph. Email me if you want the data.

Personally, I find all of these food outbreak things to be quite silly. I remember not being able to get Spinach on a pizza back when that thing was going on. Obviously there wasn't any risk (no way the bacteria survives a 400 degree oven), and I was fully aware of the scare, so it's not like I was being duped.

But the fear of litigation by the restaurant and the media blitz basically made it impossible for me to make that choice for myself.

I guess a case can be made that consumers being near-100% confident that the products they buy aren't contaminated with anything is worth the costs of the massive recalls that accompany such scares. But there's no way the physical medical benefits (ie, fewer people getting sick) are.

Paul Krugman says that food safety deregulation is the cause of the recent trend in food safety, or the lack thereof.

I'll second the motion, Krugman is right (!), deregulation is the cause of the increase in food safety.

That said, I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for Krugman to write an article called I was wrong, Milton Friedman is right, food deregulation is making us safer.

Like most regulatory arms of the executive, the FDA has atrophied during the tenure of the Bush administration. To the best of my knowledge this is because of willful neglect rather than directed malice (unlike the MSHA, OSHA, or the EPA).

1) Mine incidents, costs, and people injured show a downward trend.
2) Workplace incidents, costs, and people injured show a downward trend.
3) Food incidents, costs, and people injured show a downward trend.
4) On another level, plane crashes also show a downward trend.

There have been people jumping all over year-to-year volatility or incidents that make the paper, but the data, including that from independent groups, say otherwise. Why, one might almost think that other factors are more important than OHSA, MHSA, and all the rest at promoting safety.


I don't think that trend is robust against the industry trends independent of regulation. E.g. cancer rates due to uranium dust has decreased in the 1990's in the US but safety practices really haven't changed, the mines have been closing down.

Also, I don't automatically think that the impacts are coupled directly to regulation. In the case of the FAA, there are thousands of checks built in from a half-century of regulation. That Northwest wiring inspection incident? It was a non-starter from the safety point of view because the engineering practices undertaken by the manufacturer. We aren't decreasing regulation and suddenly entering the state of nature.

RE: Plane crashes. I think the governing data here should be near miss and collected anon reports from pilots and controllers. Again, the system in question is VERY, VERY robust.

RE: Mine, workplace, and other incidents. Where is that data coming from?

Adam Hyland already hit on the main part of this problem, however, it's not just the federal level.

There has been a continuing decline over the past couple of decades of the resources and thus the ability of state public health agencies to adequately collect, analyze and report much of this type of data.

What you are therefore seeing in the CDC data is at least partly (a very large part IMHO)due to the decline of incoming data and not really a decline in actual incidents.

Anyone got a good hypothesis about why outbreaks go up in even numbered years? Congressional elections?

Did you really just plot a trend line with 8 data points and no control variables? This almost makes me jump to the conclusion that Krugman must be right, or you would have put real arguments up to counter him. What is the correct measure? Probably not outbreaks. With increased news coverage (that some have mentioned are the reason people think there is a trend) the outbreaks are very limited. Although i am bummed right now I can't get tomato on my hamburger at Wendy's, at least I am not getting sick. Maybe quantity of food contaminated is the correct measure. It seems that the quantity of tomatoes (and spinach earlier) affected is very high, but the information is spread quick enough to reduce the outbreaks from reaching large numbers of people.

In my fantasy world, every news article is required to have a little blurb at the bottom that indicates the true statistical likelihood of the events covered in the article happening to the average person. I'm getting so tired of people getting riled up over nothing because some journalism major couldn't think of anything novel to write this week. This is just another example.

Is that correct - 8 data points in 8 years?

No doubt the NYT owners think Krugman is a genius. Therefore they should redirect his efforts into saving the NYT, itself. The stock price is the same as it was 22 years ago so they need his expertise.

Adam and Blaine hit it.

The less money we spend finding out about incidents, the more it will look like we don't have incidents to spend money fixing.

There will always be dull people who believe that reported cases = total cases.

Also, with the exception of the spinach case, I can't remember other times in my adult lifetime where an entire category of food was pulled off the shelves or advisories were sent out. Because of notifications like that, wouldn't illness incidents also go down?

Here is the data on outbreaks as number of cases and not number of outbreaks. It shows the same downward trend. And it shows volatility increasing (2004 is th worst year by far and 2005 is the best by even farther), which of course may or may not be a real change in the underlying process (it is only a few points).

1998 26719
1999 25286
2000 26043
2001 25035
2002 24971
2003 22791
2004 28239
2005 20179
2006 25659

So, do you suppose Krugman's gaffe (# 1,743 in a continuing series) will cause Brad DeLong to write one of his infamous why oh why can't we have a better press corps whines? Neither do I.

If you thought these numbers looked small you're right,

"Foodborne diseases cause an estimated 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year (21). Although foodborne diseases are common, only a fraction of these illnesses are routinely reported to CDC because a complex chain of events must occur before a foodborne infection is reported; a break at any point in the chain will result in a case not being reported. In addition, the majority of reported foodborne illnesses are sporadic; only a small number are identified as being part of an outbreak and reported through the Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System. ... Therefore, the system represents only a fraction of the burden of foodborne disease."


So we are getting a small sample of something that may be pretty volatile. I don't hold any strong priors about changes in food safety in the last 8 years, but if I did, I doubt this evidence would change it much.

always read the footnotes:

*All data for 2001 - 2006 were collected electronically through the Electronic Foodborne Outbreak Reporting System (EFORS) without confirmation of etiology by CDC staff; all etiologies are as reported by the state. Etiologies of outbreaks prior to 2001 had been confirmed by CDC staff. Therefore some differences may exist comparing 2001 - 2006 data with that from prior years

Except that the same trend is shown by number of reported cases of food poisoning as well. I have a hard time to believe that people would fail to record when they get sick. Certainly actual incidents of contamination could be not reported, simply the goods thrown away. Actual sickness is much more likely to show up in reported data. Just as I find it hard to believe that the FAA is covering up actual air crashes and passenger fatalities, even if you believe that they're not inspecting often enough. The same is true about mine fatalities-- several events that were well-covered by the news, but actual injuries and fatalities down. Eventually this lack of necessary regulation should show up in the easily measured stuff, right?

There will always be dull people who will choose to believe anecdotes over data, no matter what the data says.

The mine data, Adam Hyland and others ask about? Right off the MSHA website, among other places. It's not just because of mines being closed, fatality rates per hours worked are declining. Total injury and incidence rates per hours worked are down as well. The data in mine safety is overwhelming; it's a trend that started long ago and has shown no signs of stopping. The number of deaths averaged in the 90s in the 1990s, and has dropped to the mid 60s in the 2000s.

Workplace injury? Again, right off of OSHA's site. While they could be hiding things that would turn up in more inspections, or not inspecting as much, I think it's much harder to hide severe injuries and fatalities. Look at the 2006 data Not just total incidents, rates declined. Not because of a shift from manufacturing to services-- rates within the manufacturing sector and within individual industries declined. Fatal work injuries? A steady decline.

If there's one place where Bryan Caplan's pessimistic bias rears its head, it's here.

John Thacker,

It is rare for people to seek help with a mild case of food poisoning, therefore, there is no reporting. The cases that tend to be reported are usually from the elderly and young children. Not everybody who gets sick from eating bad Chinese food or something that "just didn't taste right" runs off to the ER or the clinic for treatment. It's not just about being personally aware that you've been sick, but the numbers that actually make it to the desk of the CDC.

And you just gave him a Milton-like-answer, stricly empircal, based on facts from history.

There are two problems here that are intertwined. A couple of posters know they're separate.

1) Risk perception. The risks are trivial and we overestimate the probability of small risks (look it up).

2) Regulation. An efficient regulation system could reduce overall food risks, or any other risks, further, but we ain't gonna get one.

3) Leaves lawsuits. But regulation precludes this! This is why the regulated love regulators.

4) Without regulation, the food distributors (Supermarkets) could get nailed, and they'd then watch out for us.

There are good comments here about the difficulty of estimating food borne illness but I think that misses the point of Tabarrok's post. Tabarrok is not arguing that food illness is down, Tabarrok is testing, using the evidence available to him (and us), Krugman's shocking assertions. The real question is. What evidence does Krugman have for his strident, extreme and damning claims?

The responses on this blog really show the fact that there is a huge difference between understanding understanding economics and just being a libertarian.

"Some blame globalization; some blame food-producing corporations; some blame the Bush administration. But I blame Milton Friedman."

Geez, what happened to old-fashioned, red-blooded, 'merican scapegoats, like gay marriage and global warming?

Regarding those food-producing corporations, thank goodness for the 2006 elections because the new Congress would never commit such blatant acts of corporate farm welfare as were committed in the past by those dastardly red-staters.

Incidentally, shouldn't the data be reported in per capita terms?

A couple years ago there was a similar food borne illness scare. I noted then that the statistics showed a decrease in such cases.

Ahead of the curve.

Geez, it's so easy to line up against Krugman. Pick an issue -- any issue -- and invariably old Paul is on the wrong side of it.

The actual details don't matter too much. It's just another case of Friedman wishing that wishes were fishes. Remember that he has predicted 9 of the last 0 recessions.

Hey, Krugman, MIT called! They want their sheepskin back.

Actually, I read a really good Krugman article opposing rent control. (I had to double-check to make sure it was actually Krugman.)

It was great to see his breathless, red-faced, shrill reporting turned against an issue when he is correct.

If I could make an observation to those who comment about about lack of controls;

1) I think you are demanding slightly unreasonable levels of data for what is, after all, a prima facie, refutation. The obvious control variables are probably near constants. Ideally, yes, we might control for something like "# of portions consumed", or "calories consumed" or "% of cases reported" of some-such. But really; do people imagine these numbers have >5% year-on-year variance? They will be close to constant, probably increasing slowly over time. So no effect on the argument.

2) Krugman's assertion: "Things are more dangerous; Trade & Milton Friedman are to blame." is simply false on its first premise and can be discarded at that point. The logic doesn't require a statistical control to explain the variance in the trendline because the claimed premise are about values and not sources of variance. No more than the claim "Temperatures are warmer" requires a detailed model of climate to evaluate.

In fairness, as others (correctly) have pointed out, an argument might still be constructed that "Milton Friedman has made food more dangerous". Indeed; it could use this approach, perhaps showing that "global consuming cities" showed larger upswings over the period that "local consuming midwest"? But the onus must surely now lie with Krugman to develop a more sophisticated model and produce data for such an argument?

On a sceptical note and slightly sour note; I observe that if people don't check their prima facie data before putting pen to paper, they usually are not interested or capable of doing so.

Best regards.

I think what Mr Krugman meant to say is that "reporting about America's food safety" has increased dramatically the past six years. Let a Democrat into the White House, and watch that trend immediately reverse.

What we see is a lot of variability from year to year but a net downward trend.

I'm not a statistician, but based on the data Charlie posted, a regression line seems to have a slope that's not significantly different from zero. (I expect the same is the case for the data in the graph, in which the pattern is qualitatively similar.) That is, there's no net downward or upward trend--there's not enough data and it's too noisy for this linear model to give any insight.

"there's no net downward or upward trend"

Correlation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for causation. Is it getting worse with respect to time? It may not be clear that the trend is down, but it's pretty clear that it isn't up. Krugger bugger is either looking at different data, agrees with the reporting bias argument, or is just capitalizing on hype- none of which he cited in his article. So, what is he looking at? And who has the burden of proof, a NYTimes columnist, or a blog post?

Other questions: What role did the gov't play in the tomato lockdown versus private sector? What does this say about who leads and who practices CYA and what does this say about who acts fastest to protect their customers?


OK, go read the Krugman article. Just read it.

Krugman does not claim that incidents of food-born illnesses are up. He doesn't say anywhere in this editorial that incidents are up. The people who say he says that, made it up. It isn't there.

What Krugman says is first that the media are reporting a lot of incidents.

"Lately, however, there always seems to be at least one food-safety crisis in the headlines — tainted spinach, poisonous peanut butter and, currently, the attack of the killer tomatoes."

Second, he says that the perception that we are doing less testing has hurt our exports.

"The declining credibility of U.S. food regulation has even led to a foreign-policy crisis: there have been mass demonstrations in South Korea protesting the pro-American prime minister’s decision to allow imports of U.S. beef, banned after mad cow disease was detected in 2003."

Are either of these claims somehow controversial? Aren't both of them obviously true?

Then he explained how it happened. Fringe conservatives wanted everything deregulated. They didn't get enough power to get rid of FDA but they did get enough to make it ineffective.

"They did this in part by simply denying these agencies enough resources to do the job. For example, the work of the F.D.A. has become vastly more complex over time thanks to the combination of scientific advances and globalization. Yet the agency has a substantially smaller work force now than it did in 1994, the year Republicans took over Congress."

Is this debatable?

Krugman reports that regulatory agencies got political appointees who tried to stop them from regulating.

"Thus, when mad cow disease was detected in the U.S. in 2003, the Department of Agriculture was headed by Ann M. Veneman, a former food-industry lobbyist. And the department’s response to the crisis — which amounted to consistently downplaying the threat and rejecting calls for more extensive testing — seemed driven by the industry’s agenda."

He doesn't support this point. Maybe they refused to regulate for some other reason. Maybe Veneman had nothing to do with it. Stranger things have happened. I suppose someone could research this and get back to us.

"One amazing decision came in 2004, when a Kansas producer asked for permission to test its own cows, so that it could resume exports to Japan. You might have expected the Bush administration to applaud this example of self-regulation. But permission was denied, because other beef producers feared consumer demands that they follow suit."

I read about this at the time. It seems utterly unbelievable. Maybe it was a false report? Private industry forbidden to self-regulate? If that was true it would be like a war crime. Except the Bush administration is not at war with the US public. Probably this was some sort of false report, it didn't really happen, and Krugman got fooled. No government agency could be that bad.

"Eventually, the department did expand its testing, and at this point most countries that initially banned U.S. beef have allowed it back into their markets. But the South Koreans still don’t trust us."

Nothing controversial there.

"The ironic thing is that the Agriculture Department’s deference to the beef industry actually ended up backfiring: because potential foreign buyers didn’t trust our safety measures, beef producers spent years excluded from their most important overseas markets."

Again, nothing controversial.

"The moral of this story is that failure to regulate effectively isn’t just bad for consumers, it’s bad for business."

Krugman says that to participate in global markets, we must regulate enough to satisfy foreign customers -- independent of whether that regulation is actually needed or useful. He also says without evidence that the lack of regulation is bad for consumers.

With the Mad Cow disease thing, how would we tell whether it was bad for consumers? If we know now how much mad cow disease there was in US cows, we could look back and see whether testing was needed. Since there has not been a mad cow epidemic we can safely say that we didn't need testing, that the testing was in fact a total waste except to restore public and foreign confidence.

If there had been an epidemic and, say, over the next 30 years 50 million americans were to come down with symptoms, then we would know that the testing was needed and over the next 30 years a big scandal would develop about it. It would be bigger than the thalidomide thing was, which is almost completely forgotten now.

What does any of this have to do with the idea that food-borne epidemics might be declining although we recently had the worst year since we started collecting data?

So why didn't you include the data pre- and post-1994, when the Republicans took over the branch of government that controls spending? You see a clear increase after that date from ~500 outbreaks/year to 1999 levels, where it begins to decline.

Or was this post some sort of confidence game about reading your source with your readers?

Ok, quickly here...

(1) I don't know if Krugman is right or wrong.
(2) From all the commments here on the stats and - much more important! - the various issues with collecting this data (which are referenced in the report) - it is *very clear* that analyzing this issue requires really digging into the data and looking at reporting biases, methodological issues etc.
(3) So: the bottom line (if you agree with #2) is that a simple graph like Alex presented is only the beginning of the discussion.

And - Alex, c'mon. This would be less a deal if you had said something like "an initial analysis" or "a cursory view of the data" .."does not support Krugman's statements".

You wrote the blog entry like a disproof. And, no, your simple analysis is not enough.

Frankly, you would *never* accept this sort of thing in your professional work - so please don't be so sloppy.

I'll just put this one in as a "bad day for for the excellent MR blog". We all have them (this writer included!)

Mark, I repeat: Krugman did not say that food poisoning is getting worse.

Krugman said that unless we convince foreigners that we adequately monitor food safety, we cannot sell our food on the global market.

With globalization it isn't enough to require consumers to depend on industry self-regulation. We can't get away with forbidding industries to self-regulate. Foreign buyers -- unlike US consumers -- have alternate sources and they will choose the ones they think are safe.

"What Krugman says is first that the media are reporting a lot of incidents."

Which is inconclusive and most likely meaningless, especially since there doesn't seem to be a corresponding increase in the numbers of people actually getting sick.

"Seem to be" is the important phrase there. We aren't putting as much effort into finding cases, and then we don't find as many on average. What conclusion should we draw from that?

Look -- imagine you're in charge of a bunch of warehouses and you want to know how many rats are there. You could start with estimates of rat damage but that's hard -- you need trustworthy inspectors who check that it's actual rat damage or a lot of pilferage will get called that. So you put out ten rat traps per warehouse and you count how many rats you catch.

Then during a budget cut you put out only 5 rat traps per warehouse, and you find that the number of rats you catch has not gone up. Can you conclude from this that the number of rats has not gone up?

"Krugman says that to participate in global markets, we must regulate enough to satisfy foreign customers -- independent of whether that regulation is actually needed or useful."

So we should have gone through useless, highly visible motions just to make some people feel better.

Unless you measure, how do you know whether it's useless? You can assume it has to be useless, but how can you test that assumption without actually measuring?

And especially for epidemic disease, you'd like to find out it's happening before the media report there are millions of cases. One year there could be very few cases, the next year it could go into exponential growth. The sooner you stop it doing that, the better. Years that nothing happens you can think the testing is useless. Years that they stop problems early and without much media coverage you can think the testing is useless. It's only after a disaster that it's obviously worth doing.

Sorry if someone has already pointed this out but there's something very odd about this graph.
Why the hell the foodbourne diseases outbreaks always decrease on odd years and increase on even years. The only eception to the "rule" was 1999.

Just a quick comment on the idea that such "large amounts" of tomatoes and spinach were affected the last few outbreaks.

What's happening there is the lag between globalization and traceability. You have Mr. Restauranteur who was used to getting in a shipment from the same few farms once a day, now he's getting shipments from a warehouse that can get its material from all over.

And you have Mr. Farmer who was used to shipping his crop out to a handful of folks, now he's shipping to a warehouse that goes all over the world.

Mr. Warehouse Guy didn't even exist 60 years ago.

Back then, lot traceability didn't have to be that tight at all, because you didn't have to follow the trail that far. The supply chain has changed, but the lot traceability really hasn't. So the best you can manage when you find an outbreak is to cut it to a so-many-county area within a space of a few months.

--Obs, In my experience, give the industry a few more expensive recalls like this and they'll figure out how to grow leaves with barcodes on them.

Interesting post and thread, Alex.

On food safety issues, I try to ignore the ideologues.

On the one hand, Grover Norquist and Milton Friedman have hopes for market incentives that are not only unrealistic, they are very far from the current state of good contemporary economic thought on food safety.

On the other hand, I give little weight to critics who hold out unrealistic expectations for government prevention of all food safety risks, not so much because they care about food safety, but because they just have large ambitions for government interventions in the economy.

Current economic thought draws on a fairly specific diagnosis of different kinds of imperfect information, each of which calls for a different policy response, which can range from laissez faire to labeling to testing to regulation.

A standard mainstream -- or even somewhat conservative -- text on the economics of food safety is John Antle's book on food safety. It acknowledges market failures in food safety, and particularly recognizes the need for strong government regulation of food-borne pathogens, because in many cases consumers cannot recognize the safety of the food even after purchase, and hence cannot defend their own interests in the marketplace. In my reading, Antle is a strong critic of food safety activisits on other topics, such as pesticides (where he believes there is overregulation disproportionate to risk), but on food-borne disease he seems to me closer to Krugman than Friedman.

There are some exciting private market innovations in food safety recently. For example, the buyers for major supermarket chains are getting more sophisticated in demanding safety from their suppliers, which allows the market to achieve good outcomes that individual consumers could not command on their own.

At the same time, it is fair to say USDA and FDA oversight of food safety have fallen far short of a balanced position. The CDC stats on outbreaks have a number of shortcomings, and don't suffice to make me think otherwise. Take something like the USDA's refusal to let Creekstone beef voluntarily test its own product for BSE. It is so outrageous that the J. Thomas in his comments even presumes it to be untrue (it's true). The so-called "regulators" are way out of step with the public interest position of economists, even market economists who appreciate the market's accomplishments on its good days.

J Thomas,
So, you think the people saying Krugman is spouting hyperbole to forward an agenda came up with this notion out of thin air?

"How did America find itself back in The Jungle?"

I'm sure he's not aware of how the use of his buzz words might be interpreted.

"But isn't he correct that Friedman helped to legitimize these insane people?"

Legitimization happens in peoples' minds, for which they are solely responsible for. If Friedman said something that is true, and other people assume he said something about some group that other people still consider insane, but Friedman never said anything of the sort, then no, Friedman is not responsible for that.

So, if Krugman is innocent of people misunderstanding his meaning, then Friedman certainly is.

Andrew, it's hard for me to see your point.

Friedman said that we should get rid of the FDA because private businesses will coordinate their own safety practices better without it.

Later, people who previously would have had no credibility at all managed to get control of the FDA and attempted to turn it into something we'd be better off without.

Did I misunderstand Friedman's meaning? What did he really say?

Alex, I read your report and also some others. I have not read the court records yet. (Creekstone sued and won, I think USDA is appealing.)

I think I understand USDA's position better now. It goes something like this:

BSE had a chance to increase rapidly because we were feeding cow brains to cows. One infected cow could infect multiple others, and then they could infect more still....

So we made rulings forbidding that practice. If (as USDA believes) there is no other important pathway for infection, there might be a very few cases but not many. Their testing showed up one case which caused a panic. Then they tested 600,000 animals that were in high-risk groups and found two more.

The hope is that infected animals don't pass on the disease to humans if they are slaughtered young enough. Since young or recently-infected cases are hard to detect even if you test them, this hope is necessary. It's only older animals that benefit from testing, and many cows are slaughtered young.

A few people die every year from symptoms similar to BSE, from unknown causes. It could be from eating beef products or it could be something else. We accept this level of awful symptoms followed by death because we have to.

So the USDA strategy is to break the cycle of infection, and then test the most likely cases to see whether there is infection going on. Don't slaughter animals that have symptoms. Don't feed cow parts to cows. That way we avoid a giant epidemic, and we accept the background level while we do the research to find out how to best deal with it.

The USDA's problem with Creekstone is first with the test they want to use, and second with them wanting to do it themselves.

It appears the test has too many false negatives and too many false positives. False negatives mean that some infected animals will be wrongly certified clean. False positives aren't so bad, we only lose a small fraction of good beef, but they scare people into believing we have more BSE than we do. This test has been approved by various other nations that test every cow. They reject a few thousand cows and they feel better for it. Even if a few infected animals get through, every infected cow that's caught is a good thing.

Next, when the company does its own testing, who checks whether they do it right? They have an incentive to ignore positive results, or even to fake their records and claim they did tests they did not do. You don't usually choose a basketball players who's playing the game to be the referee.

If you believe the USDA is unbiased, then you will trust them to detect an epidemic. They can do the cheap quick test first, and then follow up with a slower more expensive test on the positives to reduce the false positives. When the number of detections goes up significantly then you know there's a problem that must be solved. Two cases out of 600,000 of the most at-risk is pretty encouraging. The USDA tests are reliable for detecting an increasing epidemic, but they aren't reliable to find every case.

Why should we use the cheap test and then brand meat safe, when it is not safe? And the more false positives we get, the more people will think we actually have a significant level of BSE in our beef when we don't.

I can imagine that position. It isn't as absurd as it looked at first. I can imagine other approaches. For example, the USDA could set up teams to do full testing, and when somebody requests it, test all their animals at cost. The exporter gets his certification better than doing it himself. The USDA gets to confirm that the work was done correctly. USDA gets more baseline information at low cost to the budget. And FDA can forbid domestic advertisers from making misleading claims about the results. But Creekstone asked for permission to do it themselves, and it took USDA 6 weeks to say no -- rather fast for a big bureaucracy faced with a subtle problem. It would have taken much longer to get my solution working.

If we're selling in a global market we have to do the tests the customers want, regardless whether we think those are adequate tests.

Stuart, it isn't that simple to conclude why someone does something. The USDA could have been ordered to make that decision because of crony capitalism, and then come up with this reasonable-sounding excuse.

Many cattle are slaughtered younger than the apparent incubation period. Can they infect people? If they are infective before they show symptoms themselves and before the test detects them, then we have a serious problem.

You must hope that early-stage cattle are not infective, or that BSE is as rare among the cattle that are slaughtered early as it is among the differently-treated cattle that are slaughtered late.

Or else you should give up beef until the situation is clarified and we have better tests.

This is a serious issue.

So, meanwhile USDA says that US beef can't be tested as foreign nations require because the tests are not effective. Foreigners require an ineffective test and so we can't export to them?

If a foreign nation requires exporters to them to fill out a form where there's a checkmark for "tested negative for BSE", it isn't false advertising to check that mark when the test has actually been done.

So, they have a rationale that sounds better than the explanation the media gave. Was that really their reason? No way to tell, yet. Look at our war in iraq, where officially the US government announced that iraq was trying to build nukes, but we now know they were lying, that they had no reason to think that, but instead they made up their evidence so they'd have a plausible excuse.

"The USDA could have been ordered to make that decision because of crony capitalism, and then come up with this reasonable-sounding excuse."

"Hypothetically, yes, but I very much doubt that Krugman has any evidence that your hypothetical is actually true."

Agreed. It looks like Krugman got taken in by the conventional wisdom on this particular example. While it's completely plausible that the reasons the media gave for the decision were the real ones and the ones the USDA gave the courts were a cover story, still it hasn't been proven.

The USDA story, while obviously boneheaded and wrong, is still superficially plausible. An incompetently managed agency might do things like that out of stupidity and not malice.

Stuart, at the time a number of foreign countries demanded that all cattle they imported must be tested.

US exporters who complied with their demand could export to them. US exporters who did not could not.

It is not false advertising to say that you did the test they demanded. It might be false advertising to say that the cattle who tested negative were BSE-free.

The science is peculiar. As I understand it (and I haven't done a lit search for well over a year), there are no living organisms involved except victims. A particular protein in your brain can change shape, and if it does change to just the wrong shape then it can catalyse other copies of that protein to also change shape. When too many copies change shape your brain shuts down.

When you eat copies of the protein that have changed shape in some other nervous system, somehow some of them might get to your brain and start catalysing your own brain proteins to change shape too.

Nobody knows how much of a dose it takes to do that. Cows that are only starting the process have small amounts of the protein present in their brains and nerves. You aren't safe if you avoid brain and CNS tissue, the nerves that run through muscle might have the protein too. And other food can be contaminated by brain or spinal contents. Also, human tests consistently show small amounts of the changed protein in the brains of people who died in accidents and had no symptoms. So detecting early infection from small amounts of the changed protein is probably not workable.

If you can get the disease from eating meat that can't be tested, then the only safe choices are to make sure none of the meat is contaminated or else stop eating beef.

The USDA has rejected the latter approach, so they test to make sure that the number of cases is at acceptable levels. When they find a positive case people freak out because the only acceptable level is zero, so they must test enough to detect a truly dangerous epidemic, but not enough to detect any cases when there is not an epidemic.

Maybe you can't get the disease from cows unless they already show symptoms. In that case we're OK as long as beef producers discard every cow that has symptoms instead of profiting from them.

If you like voodoo thinking, the low levels detected in random human brains could possibly mean that you can get it from early-stage cows, and most of us have gotten it and will show symptoms in the future. This is compatible with the data but you don't win anything by thinking about it unless you like to feel doomed.

We are betting the nation on the hope that early-stage infections are not infective, or that there are very very few early-stage infections in our cattle. We currently have no way to tell whether that's true.

If it's false advertising to say that young cattle which have been tested are BSE-free, what kind of advertising is it to say that our national stock of cattle -- only a very few of which ever get tested -- is BSE-free?

Anyway, I say that the obviously good choice here would be, if US businesses want to test cattle so they can export them and improve our balance of trade, do the tests for them at cost. But have the FDA tell them they can't advertise their meat as BSE-free.

I see no reason to propagate a flawed system, even if I did believe in gov't regulation per se.

I don't know the details of how the system is run. They should have had the best professional scientists they could get to design it. The system may have been designed for one level of funding, and then have the funding cut with no funds to optimise the system for reduced funding. That happens sometimes.

One advantage of government testing is that they don't have as much incentive to cheat. Except that we're getting a lot of reports of attempts to cheat by political appointees. A private testing system that could show its integrity would be a good alternative.

Q: Why get into debating what constitutes BSE free? It's hard to prove a negative. Why not just advertise what testing protocols were used?

I completely agree.

I disagree about the safe choices. If beef is the most affordable protein source, then it is not reasonable to avoid it on the miniscule chance of getting BSE.

The USDA testing is designed to make sure that chance is miniscule, at minimal cost. If the chance gets too high, then the testing should detect it. Assuming various assumptions, that we have no evidence against yet.

Tomatos are very good for you, a lot of health has been lost as an opportunity cost for recalling all the maters to get a small fraction of bad ones.

This is a side-effect of our distribution system. Probably the small fraction are coming from a few places, but we don't track which places they are. Better tracking would probably pay for itself pretty quick.

...our tax dollars might be better spent researching remedies for the cellular junk problem...

Research is good. Our beef industry has a PR problem -- people don't trust them not to break the rules then that's profitable. So testing by somebody generally believed to be trustworthy is an aid to commerce -- to people getting meat on their tables. But now the government testing is somewhat suspect too. What to do?

There's the side issue that globalization reduces our government's sovereignty. When it's all domestic the government can say what to do and people can do it that way or be criminals. When we compete on the world market then to some extent we have to do what foreign customers want.

Just a couple of comments on the food fight: First, it’s apparent we don’t need lawyers to protect us – what happened to spinach producers during the E. coli scare was pretty devastating. Now tomato producers are taking a huge hit. The food industry is well motivated to police itself. Second, and more importantly, I don’t think hiring more inspectors will do much to prevent these outbreaks; these big government initiatives work well at getting politicians reelected but rarely deliver much added safety, IMHO.

We do, however, have a safe technology that could greatly reduce the incidence of bacterial contamination in our foods – irradiation. Hysterical and committed “activists† have intimidated grocers to the point that a consumer like me can’t get irradiated chicken, eggs, hamburger, spinach, etc. even if I were willing to pay a premium for safety. The National Academy of Science has judged the process to be free of risks to the consumer, and the FDA has approved it for use – so why can’t we get our bacteria-free food? Interestingly, spices have been irradiated for many years without any protests from the “activists†; in this case, the practice is meant to improve shelf-life, which is another benefit of irradiation.

DanC, when I did a quick Google search the first article I turned up was somebody who claimed Milton Friedman advocated eliminating the FDA.

They didn't quote him directly, though. They quoted somebody who quoted him.

Here's Friedman himself saying he wants to abolish the FDA.

He might easily be recommending that we do something better than the FDA, but he definitely has done what Krugman says he did.

I don't know how much to blame him for the result. If a nobel peace prize winner announces we ought to nuke russia, and later the US government does start a war on russia that doesn't exactly follow the smart guy's advice, how much should we blame him for it? I'd tend to think not much. He might have had a good idea that went bad when they did it badly.

We can't hold people responsible when they propose policy and somebody else tries to carry it out and does it badly. Nobody had to follow their advice. If you tell somebody to jump off a cliff and they do it, is it your fault? They should have known better.

And J Thomas, I would reject your notion of who is to blame for nuking Russia.

A better analogy is a preacher preaches love and understanding but his message is distorted by some to mean control and intolerance. (Or in Krugman's case you claim the it was secretly a message of hate and violence.) Can you blame the preacher for the way others have distorted his message?

I give up. You willfully refuse to understand the point. First, the evidence is that food safety has not declined so Krugman is wrong on the facts. Second, Krugman blames Milton but Milton was not against government inspection of food so Krugman is wrong when he tries to assign blame.

Milton was correct in arguing against federal regulatory policies that reduce competition, increase costs, and decrease freedom. History is full of examples. And on the occasions when the market fails, by the time the press and politicians realize there is a problem, the market is fixing it. But this tread was about food safety and Krugman was wrong on almost every level.

The Jungle was a joke anyway. Check this out: Put that in the pile atop your copies of Silent Spring, the Kinsey Report, and Coming of Age in Samoa, and file under Influential but Deeply Flawed Works by Deceptive and Self-Interested Authors.

by the way, think I would die in 1000, at least assuming I could avoid the plague and a few other maladies. Temporary aid is the natural human tendency, among the poor too, and it is unlikely I would be killed for being a witch. I would end up doing hard physical labor

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