In the name of improving safety, the Food and Drug Administration has just finalized two of the possible 40 or 50 rules that are likely to come out of the Food Safety and Modernization Act, enacted in 2011. Yet to modernize the food industry, it reached back to a technology invented by the food industry about 50 years ago. This system, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP), makes food manufacturers keep a constant check on their production process. Because the technology is so old, and has already been fairly widely adopted within the industry, this isn’t the kind of “modern” change the agency needs.  

After decades of trying to regulate food to make it safer—and failing—it’s time for a truly new approach. That approach must be based on what has worked in the past to make food safer: new technology. In the 1920s that new technology was pasteurization. Adoption of this practice made food radically safer; just pasteurizing milk decreased foodborne disease by 25 percent. Today, there are two different types of technologies that will ultimately begin to make food much safer, traceback technologies and cheaper methods for killing pathogens. 

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Traceback technology allows the government and firms to trace the cause of a foodborne illness back to the source. Not only does this allow bad food to be more quickly identified, but it also creates an incentive for food manufacturers to exercise due diligence. Manufactures know their reputation will suffer if they are associated with an outbreak, and traceback technology will hold them accountable. 

The FDA could also focus on funding research to make irradiation cheaper or examine newer ways to kill pathogens, such as the use of pressure, ozone, or nanoparticle biosensors that detect pathogens. Focusing on these technologies would almost certainly improve food safety—but is there really any harm in doing things the FDA’s way? Unfortunately, yes.  

The FDA’s “human food” rule will be expensive and most of the cost will be paid by consumers. The FDA “annualizes” the costs of the rule, assuming that it will only be in effect for 10 years, and says it will cost about $381 million per year. But given that we rarely repeal rules once they are on the books, the likelihood is that it will be in effect for many, many decades.  

This rule is huge at 930 pages, containing 339 restrictions (essentially commandments) that affected food firms must contend with, including requirements for over 6 million hours of recordkeeping every year.  It involves creating food safety plans and reanalysis of those plans, monitoring, recordkeeping, training, testing, registration, appeals, hearings, supply chain programs, and audits—and it includes farms, manufacturers, packers, warehouses, and packagers. Does all of that really only cost $381 million a year for the next 10 years? Actually, if we had to pay for this entire program today it would cost between $15 and $17 billion using the FDA’s own numbers. And remember, it’s not just existing firms that will have to contend with these costs; any firm that hopes to get into food manufacturing will have to contend with these costs. 

So what do we get for this massive expenditure? How much of a very large food safety problem does the FDA say that it will solve for us to pay these costs? The FDA, after years of hearings and research, has discovered it doesn’t have a clue as to the likely impact the rule will make on food safety.  

Nonetheless, the FDA expects to be rewarded for this effort. It’s not just higher prices that consumers are expected to pay for these phantom benefits, but more taxes are expected to support the FDA, which suggests that more resources will be needed.  

Instead of spending $15 billion on old technology, maybe we would have been better off looking for new technologies. The average NIH grant is about $473,000, so that same $15 billion would fund 3,200 new public or private projects looking for better technologies to keep food safe. 

If we are going to modernize food safety, why not look to the promise of new technologies of the future rather than spending billions of dollars trying to get everyone on board with a 50-year-old technology? We are long past the age when more regulations need to be the primary tool in the federal government’s toolkit for solving social problems.

Williams is vice president for policy research with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, formerly the FDA’s director for social sciences at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and author of a new working paper on “Regulations Implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act.”