As is generally the case for someone who covers the food industry for a living, I've been thinking a lot lately about regulations.
Specifically, I've been thinking about the role they play in our industry and the idea that "deregulation" as a guiding principle is a good idea. To put it simply, it's not, but let's be honest: You already knew that.
I have a friend who happens to work in regulatory compliance for a food processor, and he and I have had several conversations recently about the changing regulatory environment. We approach it from two different angles – his concern is what it means for his day-to-day work and his company, and mine is what it means for the industry overall. We also have somewhat different ideologies when it comes to regulations of any kind. But we inevitably arrive at the same point: Willy-nilly cutting of regulations doesn't do anybody any good.
I'm sure that there are regulations that you hate with a burning passion, and I'm sure you've said something along the lines of "well, if it was up to me …" We all say that about different aspects of our job, and we generally feel confident that our opinion is backed up by our experience.
But when we take a step back, don't we often find that a procedure or regulation is there for a reason? It may seem like a good idea to allow the food industry to be less regulated, but let's acknowledge something: There will always be companies that push the boundaries of what they can and can't do, and when you get rid of regulations, that gives them more of a gray area to work in.
That gray area is fine until it isn’t. And when it isn't, bad things happen. That's when metal gets into chicken, or green beans go out with no testing for Listeria, or any one of a million other possibilities happen. People get sick or injured, and in some cases die.
The counterargument, of course, is that "well, these things happen now," and it's true. But when you look at these incidents from a big-picture perspective, they are incredibly rare. Think about your plant and how many packages of just one item go out per day. Then think about how many other products go out of your plant and how many go out of every food plant combined.
It's a staggering quantity when you really think about it, and it's a testament to not only regulations but also the industry's commitment to quality and safety that there aren't more problems. But when that gray area starts to expand, problems become more common, because suddenly cutting a corner here and there isn't such a big deal when you're under constant pressure to produce more.
I'm a journalist and my friend is a regulatory compliance officer, but we have one simple credo in common: If it's not written down, it never happened. In the case of regulations, if it's not written down, it doesn't apply. While it's possible that there are regulations that can be removed or modified, taking an eraser to the entire book is an outcome that none of us want.