Law For Food: The law affects what you eat. What you buy to eat affects the law.

COOL and Consumer Demand

A recent Consumer Reports poll apparently finds that 92% of Americans want to see origin information on their food. This seems like pretty considerable demand, and is in response to the recent rash of food-borne illness outbreaks of the last year or so.

Opponents of COOL will doubtless point to their own studies which show lower demand for this information, and may also point out that polling techniques can be used to promote or diminish a desired response. In addition, it is unclear from the MSNBC report whether the poll asked customers how much extra they would be willing to pay for this information.

The argument that the market can provide COOL information on its own to meet this demand (and by implication would if demand made it likely that costs could be recaptured) is somewhat disingenuous. If reliable origin information were making it all the way to the retailer (who is after all the party most directly able to respond to consumer demands), certainly some retailers would already be providing origin information and including those costs in retail price, giving consumers the ability to choose.

The various industries are structured so that origin information is being lost long before it arrives at the retailer. The only likely way for a single firm to provide voluntary COOL is if that firm is a) vertically integrated from production through retail and either b) only buys meat from a single origin country or c) already has in place reliable segregation and tracking procedures throughout the chain of supply. A single firm which doesn’t meet those requirements is unable to initiate a market-driven solution, no matter how much consumers might demand it.

Additionally, as demand for COOL grows, the failure to provide origin information becomes a market failure: the market is structurally unable to allocate resources in accordance with consumer preferences (i.e., to allocate them efficiently). This may be a situation similar to the Dolphin-Safe Tuna issue of the 1990s.

Via Kate at the Accidental Hedonist.