The researchers, led by Trenton Smith of Washington State University, said that although the modern industrial food system has its advantages, there are “asymmetric information problems inherent to this system”, referring to consumer reliance upon brand reputation when many aspects of production are no longer able to be observed directly by consumers.They suggest that the only appropriate policy reaction is to provide verifiable quality standards, but that these may reduce profits for large food makers, at least in the short term.
“In light of the food industry’s long history of success at regulatory capture, we propose the formation of a new independent food standards agency devoted to protecting the interests of the American consumer,” they wrote.
Smith and his colleagues claim that there has been a market breakdown in certain segments of the food industry, because producing foods with the highest nutritional quality has become less profitable for food manufacturers; consumers care about nutritional quality enough to pay more for a higher quality product; and product quality is unobserved by the individual consumer.
Part of this problem, they argue, is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are charged with protecting the interests of both consumers and producers of foods, and have “often seemingly favored the latter.”
The mission of an American Food Quality Standards Agency should be built upon two main principles, the authors wrote. Firstly, such an agency should take into account the interests of consumers in terms of nutritional quality, rather than what consumers say they like to eat. And secondly, it should err on the side of caution when population-level public health policies could have unintended negative effects.
They wrote: “If an efficient market is the goal, then priority should be placed on revealing (in an easily accessible manner) to consumers product qualities that are most likely to be conducive to long-term good health.”
“Food policy should be conservative,” they added. “…When the scientific questions are unresolved, err on the side of what is natural.”
Source: Food Policy
Published online ahead of print. doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.11.021
“Waiting for the invisible hand: Novel products and the role of information in the modern market for food”
Authors: Trenton G. Smith, Hayley H. Chouinard, Philip R. Wandschneider