All Commentary
Tuesday, December 1, 1992

The Food Police Are Watching You

Citizens can sleep tight knowing that the state’s ability to order the destruction of perfectly good food remains secure.

Author and screenwriter K. L. Billingsley writes about California for the Spectator.

The current worldwide recession has hurt business and labor but does not appear to have caused any hardship in America’s federal bureaucracy. Alert regulators were recently patrolling the town of Reedley in California’s San Joaquin Valley, a rich source of fruits and vegetables for the entire United States. But there was trouble.

It wasn’t that the fruit was rotten or contaminated. The problem was size. It seems that the federal government cares so much about the health of consumers that they have established minimum size regulations for peaches and nectarines. Bigger is better. In Reedley, some growers’ peaches and nectarines were “slightly smaller than federal standards.”

Farmers are calm, practical people. The size of the fruit they produce is a matter largely out of their hands. California has been in the throes of a drought for several years. The Reedley growers doubtless wondered whether squads of regulators running around measuring peaches and nectarines constituted a wise use of their tax money, especially during a recession.

In spite of massive federal subsidies, some farmers still understand the way the free market works. Two parties agree on a price and make an uncoerced exchange from which both believe they will benefit. This is the way free, responsible people act when left to themselves.

One farmer wanted to sell his crop to low-income consumers in Los Angeles, where recent riots have inflicted additional economic hardships. If the price is right, people in that market are not likely to be concerned if the product is on the small side. Fruit spoils quickly and the growers may well have ended up giving the stuff away. There would have been many takers.

But the federal food police blocked this free exchange. Cheap or free, the fruit did not meet federal size standards. That meant that nobody could have it at any price. People could not be allowed to make their own decisions in the matter.

Federal regulators ordered millions of pounds of perfectly good food to be dumped on a dirt road where it was left to rot in the sun. One could hardly ask for a more vivid parable of arrogance, stupidity, and waste.

All any bureaucracy can do is follow the rules. It matters not if the rules are destructive to the health, freedom, and property of citizens. The regulators must follow orders. They are just doing their job. That is all they can do.

Here is callous disregard for human welfare and common sense (remember “waste not, want not”?), neither of which impinge on the bureaucratic regime. This episode should be brought up in all discussions about how much the government “cares.”

And does the fruit episode amount to a “taking” of private property by the state without due compensation? Local judges and civil liberties’ groups appear uninterested in the question. The incident also confirms that bureaucracies are indeed intrusive. Are there not legitimate problems for federal workers beyond the size of peaches and nectarines? Or is the quest of the regulators, as many fear, to justify their positions by finding new ways to complicate life?

Such intrusions are many, and are a major reason that the state can’t do what it is supposed to do—protect life, liberty, and property. The Los Angeles riots showed the state’s inability to protect innocent civilians from random violence. But citizens can sleep tight knowing that the state’s ability to order the destruction of perfectly good food remains secure.

The newly liberated nations of Eastern Europe appear determined not to repeat errors of their own recent past, in which statist dogma quashed private initiative and made life miserable. For the most part, they look to the free market for solutions. In America, on the other hand, politicians of both major parties still hail the state as a problem solver.

The federal government is the nation’s largest employer and by far its largest squanderer of money. The federal deficit continues to grow and American competitiveness continues to decline. Yet no major candidate ties these problems to the ever-encroaching state.

Meanwhile, to use Whittaker Chambers’ illustration, the statist revolution that began in the thirties continues “inching its ice cap over the nation.” The Reedley farmers would probably not be surprised if, having dumped their fruit as ordered, they found themselves busted for pollution by the Environmental Protection Agency.