American agriculture excels at producing an abundant
supply of safe, nutritious food for the Nation and the
world. Despite the productivity and quality of the
Nation’s food system, concerns remain about the safety
and quality of the food we eat and the water we drink. In
recent years, some well-publicized incidents, such as
the contamination of hamburgers with the E. coli
O157:H7 bacterium and residues of the pesticide Alar
on apples, have led to increased public concern about
the possibility of foodborne illness and exposure to
potentially hazardous chemicals in the food supply.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s
(USDA) 1991 Diet and Health Knowledge Survey, 49
percent of primary meal preparers cited bacteria or
parasites in food as the food safety issue of greatest
concern. An additional 26 percent cited pesticide
residues in food as their greatest safety concern. In
response, the USDA has begun several broad-based
efforts to make further improvements in the safety and
quality of the Nation’s food supply.
This report discusses the regulation of meat and poultry
products from the economist’s perspective. Economics
plays an important role in the public debate about food
safety. Fundamental economic principles help explain
why food safety problems may exist. Economic analysis
of the costs of foodborne disease helps put the social
burden of unsafe food into a broader perspective.
Finally, economic analysis of food safety policies helps
public- and private-sector decisionmakers rank policy
options on the basis of expected costs and benefits.