This Winter Session I am enrolled in Harvard Law School’s “Food and Drug Law” course. One of the topics covered in the first week of class is “filth”—a category including natural food adulterants like mold, insect parts, and rot.
As the FDA has noted, there is no feasible way to prevent some filth from getting into practically all of our food supply. Of course, the FDA has tools to address this problem where it causes actual harm. The FDA’s poisonous and deleterious substances controls empower the agency to preempt and remediate safety risks in food. And, through its “aesthetic adulteration” standards, the FDA is also empowered to address filth in food even where it causes no direct harm to human health.
In a 1978 proposal, economists Melvin Hinich and Richard Staelin proposed to replace the FDA’s aesthetic adulteration standards with a labelling system, allowing consumers to choose the level of “natural and unavoidable defects” (a nicer name for filth) that they want in their food. I think this proposal—which, I should note, was never seriously entertained by the FDA—raises a few interesting questions.
First, would filth labeling be a good use of label space? Label space is a very precious resource, and research shows that overwhelming consumers with food warning labels makes it difficult for them to distinguish between big and small risks. If we start labelling food for harmless filth content, we may dilute information that has real public health ramifications (like, for example, messaging about added sugar).
Second, what if a labelling system doesn’t work as it is supposed to? We know that individuals are often irrational actors, and consumers might express strong preferences for foods with a much lower filth content than necessary, causing companies to impose extra sanitation controls on their facilities and precipitating increases in food costs. Should choices about filth content remain in the hands of regulatory authorities because consumers can’t be depended upon to act rationally in this area?
Third, what if consumers don’t want to know the filth content of their foods? Perhaps Americans would prefer for the unseen hands of the FDA to take care of the worst filth offenders, while they stay comfortably ignorant about the remainder of the food supply. Are there certain aspects of the health arena that we can collectively agree we don’t want more information about?
None of these questions are of particularly urgent relevance—the FDA is not going to start labeling for filth content soon—but they illuminate how complex our relationship to food is, and how difficult it can be to balance the imperative to inform the public with other health policy goals.
Alexandra Slessarev is a 2018-2019 Petrie-Flom Center Student Fellow.