Obamacare is poised to put the family farm out of business. Although not directly applicable to the food industry, it has spawned sibling legislation whose ends are aligned with the Obamacare mandate of lowering health care costs for the nation – by any means necessary. Toward that end the “Food Safety and Modernization Act” was passed in 2011 which has now spawned a new round of FDA rulemaking known as proposed rule “Current Good Manufacturing Practice and Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Human Food.” The primary stated goal of this proposed rule (according to the FDA) is to “reduc(e) the public health burden of foodborne illness associated with contaminated produce.”  A worthwhile goal, I’ll grant that. However setting aside for now the question of constitutionality of a federal agency laying down rules to govern activity that is wholly intrastate in nature, there are a number of problems with both the implementation, results and costs associated with this end goal.

Some of the more absurd components of this proposed rule include (a) WEEKLY testing of water “before it touches the surface of any fruit”, (b) where manure has been spread one must wait 9 MONTHS before harvesting, and (c) the maintenance of DAILY clipboards of records of every event that takes places on the farm related to food production. As with any regulation there is a cost involved. Irrespective of the industry it is always the large entity that has the advantage relative to its smaller competitors in terms of bearing the additional costs of new regulation. Therefore it should come as no surprise that this proposed rule would have the effect of putting many small farmers out of business (there are exemptions for “small” farmers, however these merely delay the timeframe of implementation). But don’t take my word for it, you can read the comments of such farmers themselves at the FDA’s comment site.

Now at this point the progressive may be protesting, “But, but, this rule will save lives and if some small farms must be sacrificed to achieve that goal then as long as the greater good is being served this is an unfortunate side-effect.” Although seeing as how most progressive types are proponents of buying locally grown produce (itself not a bad concept) I imagine their heads will explode when they realize this “greater good” will have the net effect of putting so many small farmers out of business it will all but kill the “buy local produce” industry.

Even by FDA’s own best estimates this rule would potentially reduce the incidence of food borne illness by 2-5% (i.e. save no more than 67 lives per year or about $14 million per life). And while I would gladly spend $14 million to save the life of a loved one, I don’t have $14 million nor do I (or anyone) have the right to use government to fleece my neighbors pockets for that $14 million on the off chance it might save a life I care deeply about.

The emotional response of “we can’t put a value on a human life” runs afoul of the economic law of diminishing returns. Whenever a brand new type of regulation was introduced (pollution, car safety, etc) we witnessed massive improvements – because nothing existed before that (not that such regulation was necessary however, seeing as how these types of regulations were merely a response to prior government induced market distortions). As a hypothetical example, seeing that $1 billion in regulatory costs reduces deaths from 1 million to 1 thousand legislators naturally will assume even tighter regulations costing another $1 billion will do the trick – but it doesn’t work like that. Those new regulations reduce deaths to only 900, another billion to 850 and so on. The low hanging fruit was picked with the initial round of regulation; the minuscule amount of fruit at the top takes exponentially more effort to pick.

Ok, fine, you may say, a human life should not have a dollar value attached – we should spend and spend to stop all deaths. Although publicly we may profess such sentiments, our actions speak very differently. If our safety were paramount to the exclusion of all monetary and non-monetary costs then we would either choose to drive at 1 mph at all times or spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to drive a military grade armored tank. But we don’t do that because safety is a luxury and we can only afford luxuries to the extent we have produced above more than the bare essentials. This, by the way, is why human conditions were so much less safe years ago and are so in third world countries today – not due to any lack of government oversight but rather due to lower productivity, which puts luxuries (such as safety) out of reach. So although we are bound by our productive capacity when determining how much we personally want to spend on safety, government knows no such bounds. Whether it might cost $100 billion or $100 trillion to potentially save one life is of no concern to those that bear none of the costs.