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May 30, 2007


So where are all those "free market conservatives" again? Seems to me that if a company pays to test their cows, then charges a premium for having done the testing and makes oodles of money in the process, that's just the free market at work. So what's the problem?

This is kind of OT, but is there something about BSE that I don't understand? Isn't it 100% preventable by not feeding your livestock animal tissue?

What am I missing?

This is a really big issue in japan. My wife (who is Japanese btw) has voiced the opinion that the US and China are essentially equivalent in this regard, and with things like this, I'm not sure what I could tell her to change her mind.

"I can see a theoretical case against widespread testing for some things, if they're rare enough and the costs of missing cases of those things are low."

In a situation involving factory toxins I looked at a tiny bit, the considerations of "how useful is the information once you get it" and "how costly are the false positives (and false negatives)" were significant arguments against testing (according to my Monte Carlo simulation), even in high-rate circumstances (the [possible] high rate actually meant lots of people would undergo testing in assessing the situation across the industry). And I can imagine the country might want to allow n cases of vCJD per billion dollars of testing (plus lost wages etc.) But [getting to the point] this is likely pound foolish because when the eventual human death occurs the beef industry will be more damaged. Is there any doubt that ensuring safe food is bad for the food industry?

"Isn't it 100% preventable by not feeding your livestock animal tissue?"

There's a very low rate of spontaneous cases, but I think this is essentially right. But iirc in some regulatory schemes only the dangerous tissues (brains, maybe bone marrow?) are excluded from recycling, allowing the use of safe tissues for nutrition - but there's still a chance the bad tissue gets mixed in with the safe stuff due to bad slaughterhouse practices.

In the bay area at least, it's very easy to find free-range, humanely-slaughtered, etc. etc. meat if you're willing to pay somewhat more, and I am - though Mrs. R likes to eat at McDonald's.

This is probably why Leviticus tells us to only eat herbivores and not carnivores...

I think there's pretty strong circumstantial evidence that the Bush administration (and probably Clinton's before him) has resisted mandatory testing because they don't want to find the disease and have the export market shut down for years. The British government took that approach at first, suppressing evidence of an epidemic and only instituting a strong regulatory regime when British agriculture was on its knees.

Something equivalent happened with GM soya.

Because the US government wouldn't permit US soya to be labelled as "GM" or "non-GM" in case American consumers preferred to buy non-GM soya, European companies with customers who wanted to be able to buy non-GM soya, had to refuse to buy any soya from the US.

I can't recollect how it was settled in the end (though as I can still buy non-GM soya, I conclude the Europeean right to free consumer choice won out over the right the US were claiming to force us away from free consumer choice) but I do recall that there was much annoyance and talk of economic sanctions on Europe (you weren't going to buy our mohair, or our honey, or something like that...)

"but there's still a chance the bad tissue gets mixed in with the safe stuff due to bad slaughterhouse practices."

It's found primarily, perhaps exclusively, in nerve tissue. The problem is, nerve tissue permeates the entire body, it's only concentrated in certain parts, such as the brain and spinal cord. It's perfectly possible to transmit BSE due to the presence of motor nerves in muscle tissue, for instance, no matter how careful you are at your butchering. It's just far less likely, because BSE probably kills the animal before it's had time to work it's way out to the edges of the nervous system.

The sane response to false positives, under this circumstance, is to dump the carcass that tests positive, and then test again more carefully. I assume there are more accurate tests than the BSE screening test used by the meat packing industry, or else there'd be no way to actually say that a false positive WAS false.

The meat packing industry simply doesn't want the increased expense of increased testing, 100% sample retention, more expensive confirmation tests on positive results... Especially given that some portion of the public would doubtless respond to false positives as though they were real, even if subsequent retesting identified them as false positives.

we should let the market decide if it wants BSE-infected burger. who knows, maybe people will develop a taste for it.

Mmmmmm... (cow) braaaaaaiiiiinnnnnsssssss....

Sadly, for those of us who really do believe in the free market, what no one brings up about this is that it reinforces the case for keeping power out of the federal government's hands. Because the more power is concentrated in government hands, the more money is going to travel into government pockets to select winners and losers, and nothing is going to stop that because the fact is, investments in government agents are a solid investment for big business.

The U.S. has a systemic problem with an overly strong federal government that rewards those who pay into the system. Until and unless federal power is diminished (and that will not happen), this kind of thing will continue, and will probably accelerate.


I could be wrong about this, but aren't there plenty of governments out there with very strong federal governments who don't have the problems you complain of here? If so, perhaps the problem is not a "strong ederalist government", but instead a "strong federalist government set up like the US".


While I am not familiar with all the world's governments, I think that the problem of businesses buying influence with them goes a lot further than just the U.S. government.

This settles it: nothing but flamingoes for me from now on, no matter how fowl they taste.

I agree with 90% of your post, Hilzoy, but respectfully disagree about:
But the way to do that, I would have thought, is ... for firms to get together and adopt some sort of common policy.

If beef firms make an agreement to refrain from testing in order to prevent an upstart competitor from competing too effectively, that would be a textbook Sherman Act violation.

At most, maybe, a trade association could unanimously agree to a joint advertising campaign about the possibility of false positives. Even that might run into problems.

Brett: While I mostly agree with your conclusions in your 7:10 comment, I think you are missing a point in your last paragraph. That the "meat industry doesn't want" (or, more precisely, doesn't want to pay for) "increased testing" is a blind: this is NOT a case of proposed regulation, or even tightening of existing regulations.
The Department of Agriculture's injunction (which this effectively is) against Creekstone seems to formulated entirely as an attempt to forestall a proposed - quite legal - practice which is perceived as creating a possible "unfair" market advantage . No one would be required to test for BSE above the mandated minimum percentage; the DoA just, apparently, wants to ensure that no one even can; or, more importantly it seems, advertise the fact.

And what Ginger Yellow said: Mad Cow Disease ravaged the British beef industry: anyone who thinks it can't happen here ought to have their heads examined (and NOT for BSE!).

trilobite: I was wondering about that, actually, but I was thinking that it might be OK if their reason was that they could all agree that if everyone tested, someone would get nailed unfairly by a false positive.

Still, if law is not my field, antitrust law is double super especially not my field. Here's a question, though: take a case like this (not mad cow, but some case in which testing genuinely doesn't make sense), in which there's a good non-restraint of trade reason for adopting a policy, but also a colorable argument that it is restraint of trade. What way might there be to arrive at a common solution that doesn't involve restraint of trade? Do antitrust laws have the somewhat perverse effect of making it the case that only the government can create such policies, or is there some other way?

Thanks -- I love being able to ask about this stuff.

Well, in a regulated market, the very first thing that has a set price is usually the regulators.

The sane response to false positives, under this circumstance, is to dump the carcass that tests positive, and then test again more carefully. I assume there are more accurate tests than the BSE screening test used by the meat packing industry, or else there'd be no way to actually say that a false positive WAS false.

We have to test all cows (EU regulation). There is a quick test, and if the test is positive for BSE they have a more accurate test - but the test takes a week. We test goats and sheep randomly since in 2005 was confirmed that in 2003 a goat had BSE in France.

British research into sheep indicates that it might be possible that BSE might be transferred to offspring via the mother. Certain genetic profiles seem to make animals more susceptible for BSE. Swiss researchers found BSE prions in sheep urine and on udders. That might indicate that the disease can be transferred via soiled grass or (mother)milk.

The public only hears about confirmed cases I think, not about unconfirmed positives from the quick tests.

G'Kar: since many animal diseases are contagious, you have to have some form of control to contain outbrakes. We have quite extensive contingency plans for animal diseases. You need government control to execute them properly though.

"That the "meat industry doesn't want" (or, more precisely, doesn't want to pay for) "increased testing" is a blind: this is NOT a case of proposed regulation, or even tightening of existing regulations."

Who said it was? They're afraid of being forced by market pressure to institute similar testing.


I'm not sure why you raise that issue. I didn't say anything about controlling outbreaks. This is a case of the federal government preventing a private business from trying to conduct testing on its own, as I see it. Please help me to understand how the government taking this step will help to contain an outbreak of BSE, or am I misunderstanding your comment?


I'm not dutchmarbel, but a point that s/he (sorry, I should know but have forgotten) may be making is that arguing that this is an example of why governments shouldn't be trusted with regulatory power doesn't work, because governmental regulation is generally necessary in this area (as in controlling outbreaks of contagious disease). We can't take away governmental power to regulate generally without losing necessary regulations, so we can only distinguish between good and bad regulatory decisions and condemn the latter.

LizardBreath (someday, maybe when I come back, I would really like to learn the origin of that handle),

I don't see how the ability to prevent private industry from doing something like testing their meat for BSE is in any way, shape, or form the business of the federal government, or of any government.

I am prepared to concede, at least for the sake of argument, that government needs certain regulatory powers, but I don't think that it is unreasonable to suggest that those powers should be sharply limited to minimize the types of abuses we tend to see so often.

As someone noted upthread, it is in the interests of food producers to ensure their products are safe. Take a look at who reacted faster and more effectively after the e. coli outbreak last year from tainted spinach. The big businesses who sell spinich acted a lot more quickly than the government to put processes in place to prevent a reoccurance of the problem.

It is also true that some businesses, and it would appear that big beef is among these, would prefer to take chances. Perhaps there is an argument for regulation of these businesses. But that still does not justify granting government functionally unlimited regulatory power, which is what we have now.

The handle's uninteresting. My first name is the obvious non-silly version, and people in high school called me Lizard (never the full thing). Then when I wanted an online pseud, I noticed that I couldn't keep people with handles that sounded like ordinary names straight (JohnH, JoeG, and JenF are indistinguishable to me unless I've spent a lot of time interacting with them), so I picked something silly for memorability.

Either that, or I eat bugs, with the obvious consequences.

On the regulatory point, I think that it's not workable to think of this regulation as something that could be avoided by a general limitation on the powers of government, without running into undesired limits. Sure, there's no good reason for the federal government to be able to prohibit this sort of testing. But there are good reasons for the federal government to be able to regulate agricultural and food safety testing generally -- this regulation is specifically a bad idea, but not because the government's in an area where it shouldn't be interfering at all.

Once you're looking at whether government power should be limited on a regulation by regulation basis, rather than in relation to broad subject areas, you aren't so much talking about limitation of government power as you are about making specific regulatory decisions.

Do antitrust laws have the somewhat perverse effect of making it the case that only the government can create such policies, or is there some other way?

Pretty much, yeah. Antitrust isn't my field, but that's certainly my impression. The antitrust laws do produce some perverse effects, for example, companies can't agree with their competitors that they'll all "go green." Another good example I heard about a year or two ago was a case where a university asked the local taverns to stop all selling beer half-price on the same day of the week, which was a local tradition that led to rather disastrous mass binges. The taverns thought they were just being helpful corporate citizens when they agreed to all opt out of beer night, until they got hit with an antitrust action.

G'Kar, when governments get *very* strong they may not feel the need to sell influence to business -- why sell to them when you can just take what you want?

But to the extent you're right about governments in general, and specifically in the USA, what can be done? Who will bell the cat?

Who can force a government to stop cotrolling things, except a government?

If we try to influence the government to stop doing things -- say by bribing them not to do stuff -- that doesn't solve the problem at all. Just one more set of lobbyists competing with the others.

Even worse, if the government doesn't keep a monopoly on physical force, what's to keep large corporations from hiring private armies to enforce their will?

And if government does act to prevent that, how likely is it that the corporation with the most money will win the legal cases?

I don't begin to see a solution. It looks to me like government will encroach on everything else right up to the point it starts constricting the economy and limiting its own growth that way.

This seems like a clear case where the rancher should be allowed to make whatever test he wants and let the market decide what to do with that.

The point about government regulation is the classic 'capture' problem. This seems to illustrate it perfectly. The idea behind capture is that the life of an administrative agency tends to go like this:

A) Created to deal with something that effects lots of people.

B) Passes regulations.

At this point, the companies being regulated have an intense interest in the regulations, while everyone else pretty much doesn't think about it anymore.

C) Intense, generally unopposed raising of company interests.

D) Regulatory capture--this takes place when the agency begins to satisfy the needs of the main people doing the lobbying--companies. Everyone else isn't really thinking about it, so we don't get a balanced look at things.

The problem is that companies really do have legitimate interests that really do need to be raised to the agencies. We wouldn't have good outcomes if we didn't allow that to happen. The issue arises when they are the only large group that cares--then the agency grows to listen largely to them, and come to serve their interests.

Just to consider -- in this particular case false positives will have a bad effect on the company that does the testing. For them to benefit from the extra testing they have to gain more from the public reassurance than they lose from positive results.

The companies that really lose by it are the ones that actually do get too many positive tests.

Isn't this really about the advertising of the testing, not the testing itself? Though I can see competitors being concerned about some company testing cows improperly, leading to false positives that close international doors to US Beef. With a little conspiracy aluminum foil hat thrown in, I can see Jeremy Rifkin buying a herd, testing, and claiming they all came back positive for BSE.

But if it is about advertising, shouldn't the government be able to tell companies that they can not advertise features of their products that do not provide any benefit compared to competitors, or that are misleading? For example, labeling fresh vegetables as "Tested: 100% BSE Free."

They may be true, but is misleading because there is no benefit to the customer, because there is no risk to the customer without the testing.

The government seems to be saying that these tests are unnecessary beyond the measures already taken, do not provide a benefit to the customer, and therefore are regulating commercial speech based on some standard of fraudulent advertising, because it misleads the public into thinking that the testing is necessary.

G'Kar: As someone noted upthread, it is in the interests of food producers to ensure their products are safe.

I don't believe this is true at all. It's true when at a market point when everyone is offering safe food, but that itself is an artificial "equilibrium" that's been established by decades of governmental regulation. If you look at mass food production patterns of old, your looked-for market outcome simply didn't happen.

The same critique applies to restaurant safety, etc. It's absolutely and demonstrably not true that restaurants will adhere to health and hygiene standards absent regulation. Some will, many -- most -- won't. As long as either a) you can't pin cause to effect or b) information travels sufficiently slowly, it's almost certainly not in a restaurant's interest to adhere to the kind of sanitation code we currently have. This is fine if you measure costs in strict utility, not so much if you regard human suffering as something different than the price of a lost meal.

BTW, I'm not really convinced that this is regulatory capture since what's being invoked isn't actually a regulation AFAICT. I mean, it is, but it isn't, y'know?

Darn it, Liz, I didn't want you to tell me until I came back. Now what do I have to come back for? Sheesh.

To your substantive argument, I still maintain that there is a difference between a regulation designed to enhance food safety and one that offers no more justification than protecting business.

I am of the opinion that government regulation should be presumed unnecessary unless the government can make a strong case for its Constitutionality. That would place a lot of power in the courts, but the courts already possess that power in fact, so switching the presumption from 'if Congress passes it it's legal' to 'Congress/the Executive must justify new laws,' would help to trim unnecessary laws such as this.

It is not foolproof, but no system is, and I think it's reasonable to argue that when government tries to step in to curtail freedom it be required to demonstrate that the law should do more good than harm.


If I gave the impression that I felt the government should relinquish its monopoly on the initiation of force, I apologize. I meant no such thing. But there is a difference between maintaining the monopoly on the use of force and giving government unbounded powers.

As for the growth of government, I suspect you are right. I read Demosclerosis a few years back and I think that Rauch is right on the money. I don't believe there is any way to really stop the growth of government, but I will continue to try and slow the train down as long as I can.

Whoops. But come back safe anyway -- I'll think of something else interesting to talk about.

Anarch, I would guess that G'Kar distinguishes "in their interests" from "what they think their interests are".


I'll try...I guess I still haven't read War and Peace, so that ought to keep me safe, right. ;)


That is correct. And I don't question the consensus that some kind of regulation was necessary earlier in the century when information transmission was so much less efficient. For that matter, I'm not saying that we should abolish all regulations now. I used this issue as more of a springboard to note the problems involved in governments that amass a great deal of power.

Anarch, I would guess that G'Kar distinguishes "in their interests" from "what they think their interests are".

What? If they == food producers (or restaurant managers, or any other kind of businesspeople) and we're talking purely about markets, "their interests" are precisely to maximize their profit, no more, no less. In that case, whatever they do to maximize their profits subject to the prevailing market conditions is, ipso facto, "in their interests".

The crux here is that, as an empirical matter, "their interests" do not have to include adhering to the level of safety we as a society would like. In fact, what empirical evidence we have suggests rather strongly that, in the absence of government regulation, what you'll get is a wide spectrum of establishments and purveyors of varying degrees of price, quality and safety -- and that these three will not always align in predictable ways. The speediness of the response to the e coli outbreak was precisely because it occurred in a context with stringent government regulation that allowed customers to meaningfully react to the information because they could a) identify the source of the outbreak and b) confirm to a reasonable degree that this was the source of their illness. If this had happened in, say, the Philippines or Egypt -- or even the US a hundred years ago -- do you think there's a chance in hell anything would result from it?

'In that case, whatever they do to maximize their profits subject to the prevailing market conditions is, ipso facto, "in their interests".'

No, this assumes rational actors, open information sources, symmetrical doohickeys... Also some quibbling about time scales.

Woah, did that just happen? Am I free at last?

Yeah, Kitten!

No, this assumes rational actors, open information sources, symmetrical doohickeys... Also some quibbling about time scales.

I'll grant you the rational actors, but the rest... we're talking past each other. Let me rephrase, in somewhat more declamatory fashion than I'd like: it is an empirical fact that this desired self-regulation will not occur. Furthermore, it's a shocking, and unwarranted, assumption that such self-regulation is actually in their interests without a much more finely textured discussion of the Nash equilibria, which discussion must necessarily account for the entire transformation of the market absent pervasive government regulation.

Or, to put it more directly: regardless of how you interpret "in their interests", it's a humungous leap of faith to believe that self-regulation will occur, and one which isn't supported by the evidence.

"it's a humungous leap of faith to believe that self-regulation will occur"

Not relevant to what he said - see the beef follow-up.

It is also true that some businesses, and it would appear that big beef is among these, would prefer to take chances.

One difference between beef and bagged spinach is that the responsibility for the problem with the spinach is much easier to pin down.

When the supply chain is more complicated, and food is not branded, the kinds of market forces at work in the spinach case aren't so powerful. Indeed, my understanding is that part of the reason we don't have more testing of beef is conflict between producers and packers over the stage at which testing should be done.

slarti, if you egg me on, i'll start making udderly bad puns until i'm banised to the punitentiary.


I did not realize that. Thank you. Of course, were the government not attempting to step in on behalf of larger beef producers, it's plausible that it is intervening to prevent that kind of differentiation from coming into form.


it's a humungous leap of faith to believe that self-regulation will occur, and one which isn't supported by the evidence.

I'm not convinced that's the case. See Steven Chapman for a rebuttal.

"Not relevant to what he said - see the beef follow-up."

Apparently I wasn't mind-reading enough - oops.

Krugman on the subject:
"The president of the United Fresh Produce Association says that the industry’s problems “can’t be solved without strong mandatory federal regulations”: without such regulations, scrupulous growers and processors risk being undercut by competitors more willing to cut corners on food safety. Yet the administration refuses to do more than issue nonbinding guidelines."


Why oops? You made a reasonable assumption.

As for the quote, I respect the expertise being offered, but 'can't' is a rather bold claim. I suspect that other ways do exist to resolve those problems, such as better dissemination of information about unscrupulous growers, etc. I am open to the idea that government intervention is the most effective means for remedy, but I'd need to see more than a claim from someone who has every incentive to want to remove the responsibility for her industry's failures from her shoulders.

If we could get a private company that did testing, that was widely regarded as incorruptible, that published warnings whenever it found a problem, that would help a whole lot.

Of course, the theory would have to be that the incorruptible private company would stay incorruptible because its public reputation would be its most valuable asset, and it wouldn't risk getting caught accepting bribes. And all its employees would also be incorruptible, for the same or other reasons.

Kind of like Consumer Reports. And just in case you could have a second company that tested behind the first one, hoping to catch them in a mistake. Or they could have something that wasn't dangerous that would make a false positive, and occasionally salt a sample with that to see whether it slipped through, hoping to discredit the main company.

It sounds possible, but pretty unreliable. But then, so is everything else.

If you want to be reasonably sure your beef isn't contaminated, raise and butcher the cattle yourself. You'll at least know whether that cow has symptoms.

Or perhaps establish a relationship with a farmer you trust.

There is another difference between tainted spinach and mad beef. The spinach will affect you fast enough that there is a fair chance that it will be recognized as the "guilty party". BSE takes years to have an effect. You'll probably remember that you ate spinach yesterday and where you got it from but will be unable to track back every piece of beef you ate 5-15 years ago*. I leave out the problem of heavy metals in food here but that's not typically the farmer's fault anyway.

*even if you are mad and keep a detailed record of everything, it would be impossible to get a legal proof that it was a specific piece that gave you the disease (and unlike sex partners with HIV, the pieces of evidence are not available anymore almost by definition if it is about food**)

**or you have to be really mad and keep a sample of everything ;-)


That is an excellent point. There is another issue we haven't touched on, either: how much would it cost to inspect all beef for BSE? How many cases can we expect if we don't test? What's the cost analysis?

That doubtless sounds coldblooded, but even the government only has so much money, so it does not seem unreasonable to me that before the government start inspecting all beef, we analyze the expected costs and benefits to see if it makes sense.

Which does not mean that individual meat producers shouldn't be free to test on their own and note that their meat is certified. Just as with 'organic' foods, if people want to pay a premium for foods that meat a certain standard, they should be free to do so.


"it's a humungous leap of faith to believe that self-regulation will occur, and one which isn't supported by the evidence.

I'm not convinced that's the case. See Steven Chapman for a rebuttal."

It's funny how he can write an article talking about the costs to the company of an outbreak, and how it cannot possibly be in the company's interest to allow one to occur, and never once talk about the costs to the company of preventing an outbreak.

Simply put, testing one's product costs money. Taking steps to promote better workplace hygeine costs money. And if the expected cost to the company is greater than the expected liability and lost profits arising from the outbreak, I have zero reason to believe the comapny will take the steps necessary to prevent the outbreak outside of governmental pressure.

Maybe it's because I'm a big lefty, but I don't see how this is a "big government" vs. "free market" issue, except perhaps at some kind of fringe level.

Left to their own devices, cows don't eat other cows. If you feed ground up cow carcasses to cows, some number of them get sick with a fatal, uncurable disease. That disease, in turn ,is communicable to humans that eat the sick cows.

Solution: don't feed ground up cow carcasses to cows. By "don't", I mean make it illegal to do so.

I'm sure there's some economic advantage to feeding ground up cow carcasses to other cows, and we'd all love to make a buck, but if it presents a health risk, let's not do it. Right?

I guess you could say we should let the market sort this out. You could also say we should let the market decide if folks want benzene sprayed on their corn flakes or not -- let's pretend for a moment it makes them extra crispy -- but I don't think that would fly (at least I hope not).

What am I missing here?

Thanks -

how much would it cost to inspect all beef for BSE?

I don't know. I do know that the UK tests all sheep for genetic susceptibility to scrapie, and those susceptible are not bred, so it is plausible that the costs are not unreasonable.

Let me analogyze my comments to what I do for a living. I am an in-house lawyer who negotiates leases at malls and shopping centers. And I come under pressure to give in on language in the leases to protect the landlord, since giving in would (sometimes) get leases signed faster, and (occasionally) would allow the tenant to start their build-out earlier, and therefore start paying rent earlier. And so, the leasing agents regularly "order" me to stop arguing over stuff that likely will never occur, in order to get the leases signed slightly quicker.

And yet, one time, a center we were negotiating leases for (and which we did not have an ownership interest in), had a major casualty during construction, killing several construction workers, and delaying the opening of the project by 6 months. And suddenly, the casualty language of the lease (which is one of the provisions the leasing agents care least about) became critical, as we could not deliver the spaces on time, and could face millions of dollars in late delivery penalties, and even rights for the tenants to cancel their leases. And so, we went through all of the leases we had negotiated, and in all but one case, we had kept in sufficient language to protect the owner that the tenants could not cancel, and did not have rights to monetary penalties.

And my impression of food processing companies is similar. The persons who push for safety procedures come under pressure to bend (or even break) the procedures to keep the production lines running at peak efficiency, or because the extra safety procedure would add a few pennies to the cost to produce each unit, under the assumption that nothing catastrophic would ever happen. And yet, sometimes it does.

slarti, if you egg me on

You have to admit, you're ova-reacting.

"You have to admit, you're ova-reacting."

And the yolk's on us.

You have to admit, you're ova-reacting

oh no you didn't.

pretty tough category you've cracked into there. you got the huevos to keep it up?

Have we reached the shell-by date for food puns as yet?

I'm scrambling for new material. While I do, omeletteing you all have a break.

I'm scrambling for new material. While I do, omeletteing you all have a break.


my peaks are stiff with delight.

my peaks are stiff with delight

Nightmeringueish image, that.

Must. Stop. Puns. Ack!

uh oh, Ugh's mad. we'd better nog it off.



Don't worry, it will turn out all white, and eggs-actly as we planned.


There is another issue we haven't touched on, either: how much would it cost to inspect all beef for BSE? How many cases can we expect if we don't test? What's the cost analysis?

I haven't looked at the details but I can present an approach that's kind of like it would really go, and if you like you can try to fill in the blanks.

Say that one infected cow gets through. How many cases does it cause? That depends partly on how badly infected it was, and how the meat was treated, etc. Basicly nobody knows. Let's guess for the moment that on average it would result in 5 actual cases in humans. These cases could be in the USA, or japan, or anywhere we export beef to. One cow is not a significant problem.

But suppose that cow has parts that result in infecting 5 other cows. They could result in maybe 25 human cases. Again, not a problem. But those 5 cows might result in infecting 25 other cows.

25 infected cows might result in 125 human cases. This is beginning to be a problem, though it's a problem for somebody else years down the road -- lots of the people who're supposed to stop it will have retired by then. And with 25 infected cows there's a reasonable chance (about 25%) one of them will be detected. Then if it doesn't get covered up, there's a panic. Lots of beef goes to waste because people are panicking. Lots of beef exports are cancelled because panicked foreigners don't want american beef. A big mess, the whole industry loses a lot of money. Probably at that point every one gets tested.

Say at that point it doesn't get caught. (About a 75% chance.) Then we're up to maybe 125 cows, and maybe 625 human cases. If it gets caught now (better than 70% chance it does, if it didn't before) then we have the same panic.

So if it gets past this stage then we're up to 625 infected cows and maybe 3125 human cases. At this point it definitely gets caught and we have our panic.

So those are our variables. How fast does infection spread among cows? That says how big it gets before you detect it. How often does it infect humans? That says how many humans will die from it. How much money do we lose when it hits? How much money do we save by testing for an epidemic and not for individual cases?

By testing just 1% we save something like 99% of the testing money. There would be economies of scale and diseconomies of scale, and those might cancel out.

When an epidemic hits, the whole industry will be crippled. Massive losses for everybody.

By paying 100 times as much, you don't exactly prevent the epidemic. What you probably do instead is get a few positive results a year. Probably a lot of cattle get treated in ways that they wouldn't actually infect any other cattle. As it is we don't hear about them, but if we tested everything we would. Instead of supposing that we have no cases yet, we'd have to face that it's endemic, that there's a noncow source somewhere that cows are continually getting infected from. And bad practices that happen to involve an infected cow could result in an epidemic.

So we'd face real pressure to stop those practices. And also we'd probably take a closer look at our alzheimer's paients. Some fraction of them (20%? 60%?) would turn out to be mad cow. There might be a public panic or at least a public slow burn. Reduced beef sales.

Faced with big uncertainties, the natural approach is to keep doing what we're already doing -- which has worked so far, as far as we can tell -- and put off any decisions until we absolutely have to.

So we have a system in place that will protect us from a big epidemic. We might get hundreds of cases, or thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, but not millions or tens of millions. It costs some money but only about 1% of what we'd pay to set up a testing system that might discover things we don't want to know.

This parallels the case with trichinosis, but with higher stakes.

i'm pretty fried that posters are poaching on my surf-n-turf so i'm scrambling for ways to souFLAY the brunch of you into begging for mercy.

Lizardbreath on regulation.

I'm not convinced that's the case. See Steven Chapman for a rebuttal.

No offense, but that's not actually a rebuttal to the points I was making. In fact, he almost exactly concedes the point I was making, that Americans think the food supply is exceptionally safe. It is -- now. It wasn't prior to the advent of government regulation, at least insofar as I know. [I'd be interested to hear evidence to the contrary, mind.] This didn't just magically happen; it's not like grocers and restauranteurs in the early part of the 20th century all miraculously decided to have clean kitchens and refrigerated meat. Some did, some didn't; same as, today, some do and some don't (albeit to a lesser extent). What I'm questioning -- or asserting, at this point, to make the content clearer -- is what happens when that pervasive regulation is taken away.

This goes double for illness whose provenance isn't immediately clear, incidentally, a point that Chapman doesn't address. I mentioned this upthread, as did Hartmut: plausible deniability is a powerful force, and one that should never be discounted. Because deregulation would necessarily mean reduced litigation, or at least reduced discovery, the ability to tie a specific product to a specific outbreak will be reduced, thus limiting the market's ability to get and use the requisite information. One could simply regard this as the price of doing business, but frankly I don't accept trichinosis (or e. coli or whatever) as a legitimate societal cost of doing business. One's mileage may vary.


None taken.

I believe I noted earlier that there was probably more justification for government regulation in the early 20th century because of the reduced information flow extant at the time. And there may still be a good case for government regulation of certain products; I have nowhere claimed otherwise, and noted after Hartmut's point that he offered a good starting point for regulation of the beef industry.

Our of curiosity, why would discovery and/or litigation be a necessary result of deregulation?

According to the link below the AP article had several errors in it and did not accurately reflect what was being argued in the case.

In the lawsuit, the government did not make an argument about "false positives." To the contrary, the government's brief in support of a motion for summary judgment argued that BSE tests would provide a overwhelming number of false negatives:

TJIT: thanks. I've retracted the relevant part of this post. I really appreciate finding out when I'm wrong.

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