Do Greedy Spinach Merchants Want To Kill You?


Last month, news of an E. coli infection that originated in a bag of fresh spinach packaged by Natural Selections Foods, kicked off a nationwide frenzy. More than 180 people became sick from eating spinach, 97 of whom were hospitalized. One person died. The company in question is in total meltdown, and growers around the country are redoubling their efforts to make sure that every leaf is clean and pure.

At the first notice of problems, five different companies immediately announced a recall, as did merchants around the country. Baggers started shipping salad with greens other than spinach. Grocery stores immediately switched vendors. Once it became clear that Natural Selection of Northern California was the culprit, distributors started making contracts with Southern California and Canadian companies. Consumers stayed away in droves, and parents around the country did an about-face on their opinions of spinach.

This is one of the benefits of the information age, when word gets out to hundreds of millions in a matter of minutes. The response was a marvel of how markets can work. A valuable product said to bring health suddenly becomes a source of sickness and within hours, people not only stop eating it; it isn’t even available for purchase! Compare the response time with the way governments at all levels responded to Katrina, for example.

The story might have ended there, as the groceries isolated the source of the problem and the baggers turned their attention to the farmers and the farmers looked more carefully into the irrigation and fertilizer sources and otherwise sought to fix the problem. And why wouldn’t they? They are all in business to make money. You can only make money by selling things that people want, and this much is absolutely certain: people don’t want spinach that makes them sick.

But then, and inevitably, the government got involved. The FDA echo chamber started issuing recalls. Then, incredibly, the FBI got involved, as if we were talking about thugs and criminals and terrorists rather than bad soil or a mistake at the company. Criminal prosecutors began giving ominous warnings about how “certain spinach growers and distributors may not have taken all necessary or appropriate steps to ensure their spinach was safe.”

Then the search warrants came. The FBI said “we’re definitely looking into the possibility that there was a criminal violation of federal environmental laws” that took place. So you can go to the FBI site and see news of how they are arresting people for supporting terrorists, hunting down the nation’s most wanted cop killers, breaking up violent gangs, hunting down art thieves, and also muscling spinach baggers.

Has the government never heard of the difference between civil and criminal law? To place this in the category of criminal law means that instead of fines and reimbursements or, at worst, punitive damage payments in the case of negligence, the people being investigated are implicitly threatened with jail and other forms of violence. Doesn’t it seem that the bureaucratic class is drawn to the latter forms of enforcement?

For this to be a criminal case implies that the grocers, baggers, or farmers involved in this problem are seeking to harm people through nefarious tactics, or otherwise seeking to profit by making people sick. This is ridiculous. Also ridiculous is the idea that the FDA and the FBI need to be involved in regulating and punishing people in business for failing to serve the interests of consumers.

The truth is that the people who buy and sell are far more interested in the well being of the public than lifetime bureaucrats who have no professional stake in the outcome of the enterprising process than the man in the moon. Their one and only interest is protecting their power and position. Increasingly, they seize on any and every headline to whip up public frenzy.

This is government in the Bush age, in which every turn of events becomes a matter for federal goon squads to crack skulls. People often claim that the government used 9/11 as an excuse to do what they wanted to do in any case, which was to trample on the Constitution’s protections against violations of our personal liberty. Not only is that true; the government is now using even the smallest and most petty excuses to do the same.

But you might say: at what cost? What is the big deal as to whether the FDA and the FBI are involved in the great spinach case or not? Surely the only result will be that merchants will become more careful about guarding the health of consumers.

Actually, I don’t think that is a foregone conclusion. Many more people die per day on government highways than became sick in this spinach scare, and I see no hysteria to prosecute road builders or bureaucrats at the Transportation Department. Far from protecting people, the government has a special skill associated with perpetually endangering people such as American soldiers in hostile foreign lands, not to speak of civilians. It is not at all obvious that government has the interests of our health at heart when it regulates and controls us.

There is also an ideological cost here. Whenever government demonizes merchants, it encourages the view that we must be forever on the lookout for dishonest business people who are seeking to make us sick, and from whom only the great civil servants in government can protect us.

These sorts of investigations actually encourage the view that free enterprise is a source of danger and a health hazard rather than our source of service and health enhancement. After all, a century ago, people would have found it to be nothing short of a miracle that greens could survive a cross-country trek and land on your dining table in pretty much the same state as when they were picked.

There is also a cost to freedom itself. We are being conditioned to believe that for every problem, there is a government answer, and nothing lies outside its purview and expertise. Even mild cases of food poisoning merit a nationwide investigation and crackdown on bad guys, who, we are encouraged to believe, are always in the private sector and never in the public sector. Well, when it comes to the choice between a totalitarian state and the possibility of some rotten spinach, I’ll take the latter.

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