April, 1999

Fruits of Thought

Crime And Food Safety

If you want to understand the dynamic of the food safety issue, pay close attention to the situation swirling around the shooting death of Amadou Diallo in New York City. For those not familiar with the story, four police officers working in the Street Crime Unit shot and killed an unarmed immigrant with a flood of 41 bullets as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment.

Following the death, there have been almost continuous protests against the Mayor of New York and his policies.

In a sense, the whole thing is rather odd. Mayor Giuliani has won praise throughout the city, and the world, in no small part because his police policies have led to a substantial reduction in crime. The policies really had two components: The first was a no-tolerance-for-small-crimes component. The idea is that if you let people panhandle while pretending to wash car windows, you create an atmosphere of social breakdown conducive to more serious crimes.

The second component stems from the idea of proactive policing. Instead of waiting for crimes to happen, the police reach out and try to prevent crimes before they occur. This involves things such as questioning suspicious people in high-crime areas.

What does all this have to do with food safety? Well, we can learn here that things are not always as they appear and that the superficial nature of protests often belies their real purpose. Although the protests, at least on the surface, revolve around allegations of police brutality and racial discrimination, they are, in fact, about something totally different.

There is no credible claim that these four police officers got up that morning and decided to kill a black man. Instead, in all likelihood, the shooting was a terrible mistake. Four officers out to find a rapist, aware that they could be shot themselves, shot someone they shouldn’t have shot. If this mistake was egregious enough, the officers may need to be subjected to disciplinary procedures, perhaps even legal charges.

But the protests simply make no sense as a general protest against the Mayor of New York or his policies. As long as policemen are human, mistakes will be made. Some of them will be lethal mistakes. The protesters ignore all this because they don’t really care what happened to Amadou Diallo or what the best policing strategy is. They are after the mayor specifically because his policies on policing have been effective and have made him impervious to attack.

Prior to Giuliani’s election, there was a group of citizens who, with benefit of an ideology, controlled New York politics. These people, in effect, held New Yorkers hostage. Whenever somebody wanted to reduce the murder rate, this controlling elite told the people that this was impossible without addressing the “root causes” of crime. So, if you want to be safe walking the streets, you have to endorse billions of dollars for everything from midnight basketball leagues to higher welfare payments.

Giuliani broke this ideological monopoly. He showed that we could reduce the crime rate by focusing on controlling bad people. All the sudden, New Yorkers were free to look at other issues on their merits, and so Workfare and other proposals were free to be discussed and enacted.

Many produce industry people are always frustrated at every food safety flare-up because they think the issue is purely a matter of science. Others are resigned to periodic outbursts thinking it a matter of selling newspapers.

Both perspectives are partly correct. But, mostly, the periodic outbursts of pesticide concerns – most recently a piece Consumer Reports published – are really not about food safety, or even the media’s need to boost subscriptions. Mostly the issue is about control. It is a war about the kind of society we will live in; with one tiny battle being fought in the produce trade.

The science of the Consumer Reports article and of the accompanying release by Consumers Union was bizarre. There is a vague “toxicity index” pulled out of the air. There’s a lot of focus on “endocrine disrupters”, although we know very little about these and have no methods for doing risk assessments. There is confusion all over between chronic and daily doses. Above all else, there are no objective reference points. Even though there is a lot of pointing to fruits with hundreds of times higher toxicity than other foods, no thought has been given as to what that means or how meaningful a risk is being run. Many assumptions were made, but none were supported, on the impact of pesticides on children.

Publishing all this bizarre stuff in Consumer Reports served a purpose. Right now, the EPA is preparing regulations to interpret the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. There are many people who see this Act as an opportunity to wrestle control of the food supply into the hands of a centralized “inside-the-beltway” Washington elite and the ideology that they live under. Namely that this elite knows better than the industry or the people at large what to eat and how it should be produced.

But it is more than that. It is the battle between an elite that wants centralized control of everything and those who seek to diversify control. Scaring the daylights out of people is not designed to empower people into making educated choices but instead to steamroll people into giving up their rights to Washington. Just because nobody uses words like communism or central planning doesn’t mean that old planners have ceased to plan.  pb