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Inefficiencies of Scale

Jul
14
2008

I came home from the farmers’ market last Tuesday with a couple of pounds of tomatoes. To some folks, that makes me a brave or foolish man.

So far more than 1,000 people have officially been sickened by the latest salmonella outbreak. But, health care professionals say that in such estimates, for every reported case of sickness, more than 30 go unreported. This means something close to 40,000 people have been sickened to some degree.

This event was originally attributed to tomatoes from somewhere – no one knew exactly where. That’s reassuringly specific, isn’t it? Now the Food and Drug Administration says the source may not be tomatoes but peppers – or maybe cilantro.

Whatever the source, the problem isn’t willful disregard for our safety by a malevolent tomato poisoner. It’s an organizational problem. The larger an organization – in this case, Big Agriculture and its buddies at the U.S. Department of Agriculture – grows the more it seeks to simplify and find one-size-fits-all solutions. Sometimes this leads to efficiencies of scale resulting in reduced costs to customers (if we’re lucky) and greater profits for owners. But in the case of our food, something’s gone very wrong.

Commercial tomatoes are often gathered together from many sources at centralized packing plants. Some tomatoes may come from Florida, others from California, and some from Mexico or Guatemala. At these plants they’re sorted according to size and color (apparent degree of ripeness) and repackaged for shipping to supermarkets. This is quite efficient for the purveyors. And at the store you’re presented with a collection of uniform red spheres to choose from. But without knowing the origin of a given tomato, tracing the source of contamination becomes extremely difficult.

The solution is pretty straightforward: produce should be labeled with it’s point of origin. Toys and clothing are so why not food? This might make the supply chain a bit less efficient and a bit more expensive, but it would make tracking contamination quite efficient given the scale of the agricultural system that feeds us.

But in implementing such a policy we need to be careful not to introduce an inefficiency of scale.

Now, as I’ve suggested, I know where my tomatoes are from, I even know the name of the couple who grew them. There’s no need to label them, and yet, in a search for efficiency, I worry that the F.D.A. might require that farmers Sam and Lorraine pick their tomatoes a day early so they can sit up half the night sticking little labels to each one by hand.

Actually, I can’t see that. Sam and Lorraine would just quit faced with too much work and cost to deliver a poorer product; it would be the case of an inefficiency created to someone else’s scale. But this is the sort of thing the F.D.A. and U.S. Department of Agriculture would go for. Why? Well, when it comes to livestock, they’ve come close with something called N.A.I.S., a single rule for tracking lambs, pigs and cows that’s efficient for the bureaucracy and large farm operations but threatens to put smaller farmers (like the one where I buy my lamb) out of business.

This mis-mash of policies is positively schizophrenic and results from the often conflicting roles Congress has assigned these agencies. They are chartered to promote the business of agriculture on one side and protect the public on the other. But these goals constitute a genuine conflict of interest.

It’s also absurd that the F.D.A. is responsible for tomatoes while the U.S.D.A. is responsible for hamburgers. There should be a single agency responsible for food safety and it shouldn’t have any duties beyond safety. It shouldn’t be promoting sales of pork to Canada or negotiating with South Korea over beef imports. Furthermore, it should have adequate funding. Dr. David Acheson, the F.D.A.’s food safety chief notes, that we can’t inspect our way to a safer food supply chain, but budget cuts during the Bush administration have weakened even that fragile safety measure.

As much as I love the idea of everyone eating mostly locally-raised food, that’s not realistic – we simply can’t feed everyone that way. And so we need focused policies and programs and methods for ensuring that the bulk of our food, which will continue to be produced using industrial agricultural practices, is safe. This means we need efficiences of scale both in the supply chain and the system of safeguards. At the same time it would be a mistake to blindly apply policies that are intended to operate in the arena of industrial agriculture to small and medium, local and regional farm operations. In doing so we’d be throwing the tomatoes out with the bath water.

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