A story in the Wall Street Journal reported that Brazil police launched a massive anticorruption probe of the meatpacking industry. According to the story, “dozens of firms” in Brazil are being investigated, including the largest meatpacker in the world, JBS. JBS has operations in the U.S., owning the chicken brand Pilgrim’s, the pork brand Swift Premium, and the beef brands Blue Ribbon Angus, Certified Angus Beef and other brands (go to “Our Business” on the company’s U.S. website).
The companies are being investigated “for allegedly bribing food-sanitation inspectors to approve sales to domestic and foreign buyers of meats that might otherwise have failed to pass muster.” More recent reports are that China and Europe have banned Brazilian meat amid the bribery scandal.
Brazil is the largest exporter of chicken. In the U.S., very little meat is imported from Brazil, at least compared to the amount of meat we consume. So we have little to worry about, right? The Wall Street Journal article stated that “Federal officials have safeguards in place to protect the U.S. food supply through inspections of all imports,” according to a USDA spokeswoman. “We can ensure the American food supply is safe.” That’s good to know.
A press release prepared by the USDA on August 1, 2016, announced the reopening of Brazilian markets to U.S. beef exports. Apparently the Brazilian government accepted USDA claims that beef produced in the U.S. has “negligible risk” for contamination from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). (A wikipedia discussion of BSE is here, which includes a discussion of USDA recalls of beef and the subsequent effect on U.S. beef exports in 2003 and later years.) The same statement reported that the “USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) also recently determined that Brazil’s food safety system governing meat products remains equivalent to that of the United States and that fresh (chilled or frozen) beef can be safely imported from Brazil.”
Okay. The USDA insists that “the American food supply is safe.” The USDA also asserts that the Brazilian food safety system is equivalent to the food safety system of the U.S. I wonder if the USDA is sticking by its equivalency claim after learning of the bribery scandal.
The U.S. is not without its food bribery cases. An ABC News story (here) in 2010 reports that “giant tomato processor SK Foods has been accused of paying off buyers at large food companies to accept mold-riddled tomato products for above-market prices.”
When there are reports that health and safety inspectors have been bribed to certify foods that are or can be unsafe, or when there are stories about food being contaminated with listeria or other pathogens, it is natural to wonder if the food we buy is safe. Do you really trust that the turkey sandwich you are eating will not make you sick? If so, then why?
Whether we realize it or not, trust plays a very crucial role in how we interact with each other in society. We trust all the time. We trust that the food we buy will not make us sick. We trust that the mechanic is telling us what is really wrong with the car. We trust that the money we deposit in the bank will be there when we want to make a withdrawal. We trust that the person driving behind us will not get distracted by their cellphone and cause an accident. We trust that the rides at the amusement park have been properly maintained and will not break down or injure us.
Trust means reliance on or confidence in others and is meaningful when there is a real chance for betrayal. When we don’t know with absolute certainty, then we need to trust. People trust when they expect that others are competent and worthy of their trust. This begs the question: Why do we think others are trustworthy and competent? Of course, experience helps. If I have purchased food from a store or business for years and have not gotten sick, then I might continue to expect the food I buy there will be safe, hence my willingness to trust. A few years ago I spent two days in a hotel in Kenya experiencing the gut-wrenching aftermath of food poisoning resulting from my eating raw vegetables. I won’t make that mistake again. However, experience can’t explain all trust, especially trust at the beginning of the experience.
Courts that enforce contractual agreements and government agencies that inspect food companies and regulate banks can provide an important level of assurance to consumers, but that only pushes the trust problem up a level. Why do we trust that courts are honest and that government agencies and their employees are competent and trustworthy?
Whatever the source of our expectations of trustworthiness and competence, it is clear that there is a lot of trust in society. I am grateful to live in a society when there is such a propensity to trust. But that doesn’t mean all is well. The propensity of people to trust has been declining over time. The following graph, collected from the annual General Social Survey, shows the percent of people who believe that “most people can be trusted,” in contrast to the belief “that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” between 1970 and 2014. The numbers in the graph indicate the year. The line shows the trend. The trend is obvious. Robert Putnam’s excellent book published in 2000, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, discusses this problem in detail.
What is the moral to this story? I don’t know. I’ll continue to trust that the food I buy is safe. I don’t have much of an alternative. I can’t (or won’t) grow all the food I want to eat. So keep trusting out there. Trust me. I’m an economist.