Food safety is ultimately based on reasonable decisions that flow from science.
It’s probably not going to go well if we turn to electronic mob rule where only one side of a debate is passionately delivered to mostly like-minded adherents.
But that’s what we are doing in this new world of the Internet petition campaigns.
We all have the right to petition the government. There was a day when that meant taking a petition around from door-to-door where anyone being asked to sign felt very free to bring up counter arguments or grab their shotgun if the petition promoters overstayed their welcome.
A bunch of petition sites exist today, promising that you can change the world without leaving home and with only a few clicks. Change.org, SignOn.com, and iPetitions.com are among the examples.
Even the White House web site has “We the People” as its official petition site. And there are others.
These systems often automatically send emails to the targets of the petition using the names of the signers. Since all politics is local, that usually results in overkill that makes these systems not as effective on the smaller stuff. (If you are a local council member you could care less what someone from the other side of the world thinks.)
Also, all of these petition systems can be gamed by those with either a lot of time or the skills to hack the Pentagon and Scotland Yard. So always take reports of how many signed with a grain of salt.
That said, let’s admit food safety is not thriving in this new environment. Whether it’s Michael Taylor’s future in running the food side of the Food and Drug Administration or how finely textured lean beef should be sold, food safety is not doing well on these petition sites.
They are not about facts and science; they are emotion and mob rule. In such a world, all food safety can do is get down on its knees and crawl for the door.
In a country of almost 312 million, Taylor should not have to worry about whether 430,000 people want him fired, or should USDA care a wit about 250,000 people think finely textured beef sounds icky and therefore should be off the school lunch menu. The 0.14 or 0.07 percent shouldn’t rule.
But also in a country where we’ve seen presidential elections decided by a handful of votes, no politician or hack can stand being around any list of voters without genuflecting in their direction.
Retail operations, from commercial banks to retail grocers, have proven to be especially susceptible to this sort of pressure. Watching nearly all major retail grocery chains drop the use of finely textured lean in their ground beef really was not too surprising.
They were stampeded, even through it is possible some of them will replace the ammonia-treated safe meat with something entirely more risky.
At the moment, retailers seem to be equating petition signers with their consumers and reacting accordingly, which is what the free market is all about. As my colleague Helen Bottemiller says: “consumers can be picky.”
But I think retailers and others would be wise to look at little closer at these petition mills and instead rely on consumer contacts that are, for certain, real. My guess is that Walmart was once again the one that made the right choice by going with choice and disclosure, not just dropping a safe product.
Perhaps each of these petition sites should be required to post a notice saying something like this: “While our service may give the impression that this is a direct democracy, it’s not. We have a Republic form of government based on some democratic principles. This requires you to put on your pants occasionally to go out to vote or attend a public hearing.”
I left out the part about it being a real good idea to meet someone who knows more than you do, and disagrees with you.