Monday, January 24, 2011

Is more information better?

Local food advocates aren't the only ones calling for more information about where their food comes from: with the many food recalls we've heard about over the past few years, the regulations calling for increased food traceability seem like a no-brainer. As a customer (and as a former Californian recently moved to the East Coast), I'm somewhat interested to know where my food comes from. Smart phone apps are increasingly able to tell me, and more information is a good thing, right?

Well, yes and no. As this article in today's Washington Post makes clear, more information should shine a light on all parts of the (often ignored) food distribution system. If that light helps clear up problems with food quality that sicken 48 million Americans per year, killing 3000 and costing $152 billion per year in damages (including almost $3 billion per year in Maryland alone!), that has to be a good thing.

Another potential benefit is avoiding lost income from recalls. The 2009 peanut recall adversely affected an industry worth over $1.2 billion per year. When that goes down, producers, harvesters, processors, distributors, and retailers all lose, costing jobs.

However, shining that light is expensive, and consumers will foot the bill. I worked with some agricultural economists at UC Davis who wrote a few papers arguing against labeling foods with origin information. This short paper argues that compliance will cost the industry over $1.3 billion / year. In addition, the food safety bill that finally passed Congress late last year had governmental costs pegged at about $300 million per year, according to detractors.

It's tough to pay for policies that don't have immediate, obvious beneficiaries, but I have to say that this seems like money well spent. In fact, some are calling for funding to be further expanded. If you have any other information, I'm interested to hear it....

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