More on the size of regulation: The Slaughterhouse Bathroom

Posted by: John Tozzi on February 6, 2009

I finally found the passage in Omnivore’s Dilemma that I’ve been hunting for this week, about how regulation written for industrial slaughterhouses affects small farmers who want to sell their meat and poultry. It’s on page 229:

The problem with current food-safety regulations, in [small farmer Joel Salatin’s view], is that they are one-size-fits-all rules designed to regulate giant slaughterhouses that are mindlessly applied to small farmers in such a way that “before I can sell my neighbor a T-bone steak I’ve got to wrap it up in a million dollars’ worth of quintuple-permitted processing plant.” For example, federal rules stipulate that every processing facility have a bathroom for the exclusive use of the USDA inspector. Such regulations favor the biggest industrial meatpackers, who can spread the costs of compliance over the millions of animals they process every year, at the expense of artisanal enterprises like Polyface [Salatin’s farm].

Sound familiar? It will to anyone following the new lead testing rules for kids’ products.

So here we have two industries where keeping products safe is crucial: I don’t want meat with harmful bacteria in it, and I don’t want kids’ toys with lead in them. But we also don’t want regulation to put up barriers to entry that keep entrepreneurs from entering the market. The irony, which I heard over and over again from people who made kids’ products by hand, is that many of them got into the business to provide alternatives to the mass-produced imported toys, like the ones that turned out to have lead paint and prompted the new law in the first place. On the farm, Pollan hears the same thing from Salatin:

Joel’s reasons for wanting to [slaughter animals] here himself are economic, ecological, political, ethical, and even spiritual. “The way I produce a chicken is an extension of my worldview,” he’d told me…

There must be a way to regulate these industries to protect consumers and workers without putting up barriers to entry for entrepreneurs. Such a system should level the playing field by allowing new (potentially disruptive) players to compete with established mass producers. It should be flexible, but not lax. It should stop companies, regardless of their size, that make unsafe products and get out of the way of those that don’t. It calls for a forward-thinking approach to regulation, with creative policy ideas, not reactive measures. So how do we get there?

Tell us in comments, by email, or on Twitter.

(Hat tip to BW librarian Susann, who loaned me her copy of Omnivore’s Dilemma.)

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What's it like to run your own company today? Entrepreneurs face multiple hurdles new and old, from raising capital and managing employees to keeping up with technology and competing in a global marketplace. In this blog, the Small Business channel's John Tozzi and Nick Leiber discuss the news, trends, and ideas that matter to small business owners. Follow them on Twitter @newentrepreneur.

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