The Free Market Fails at Food Safety
National Archives food exhibit reminds us why we have 'big government'
"This sample of candy requires a very careful examination. After eating of it one child died, and two others were taken sick." This notation appears in a "food adulteration notebook," a record kept by a federal
The notebook in question is on display at the National Archives in a fascinating exhibit --
"What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" -- which runs through
What was in the poisonous candy? Who knows. Common food additives included copper sulfate (a toxic fungicide), boric acid (roach killer), formaldehyde (a human carcinogen) ... the scrumptious list goes on. These were the days when the ingredients in things like children's candy were limited not by big government but by what the market would bear.
And it bore a shocking amount. Another
"Without a regulating body, the industry was free to use any substance it chose to color, disguise, or prolong the freshness of products," the exhibit notes. "Buying food for the family was a dangerous and sometimes even deadly enterprise."
Indeed. Take ketchup, one of the first successfully processed foods (but not, the exhibit notes, a vegetable -- despite the Reagan administration's best efforts). It was originally made from fermented tomato cores and skins, with vinegar added for flavor and dyes for color, a concoction with an unfortunate propensity to explode. Thank
Stories like the exploding ketchup, poison candies, and the horrific meatpacking conditions detailed in
Free market fundamentalists paint a struggle between the unerring market and the dead, alien hand of government. A market reacts, they say, when people vote with their pocketbooks and stomachs. But this paradigm misses an important fact: A representative government is an instrument of the people. Regulatory programs don't come about because liberals and socialists are trying to circumscribe freedom and hoard all power in government. They occur because of market failures. People don't like to be poisoned, so they vote with their ballots.
And government corrects other sorts of market failures. During the Great Depression, for example, the government started providing school lunches to millions of children whose families could not afford to feed them. Millions. The program is now one of the most successful and popular examples of "big government" in history, with 31 million children receiving lunches each school day in 2009. All told, there have been more than 219 billion served.
Of course, sometimes the market voids that government fills are not life-threatening but are still important. From the mid-1800s into the 1930s, the
This is not to say that government is always right, as the Archives exhibit also entertainingly demonstrates. The 1870 invention of margarine prompted the 1886 Margarine Act, which taxed and licensed the butter substitute (at the behest of dairy farmers). "Crimes against butter," as the exhibit terms it, could bring hard time at Leavenworth. Or consider the mid-1940s USDA poster depicting the basic seven food groups, the last being "butter and fortified margarine."
But the only progressives who insist that government is always the answer are the straw men of the conservative imagination. Sweeping pronouncements about the absolute virtues of one side of the market-government equation tend to come more from the right than the left. "Markets are smart, government is dumb," former House Majority Leader
And if these fights seem like ancient history, consider the ongoing efforts by House
Republicans to slash
We may no longer be dealing with exploding ketchup and poisoned candy, but I'd prefer not to have to combat E. coli with a chemistry set I found on
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