Here’s an interesting story about efforts to regulate competitive behaviour in the food industry:
By William Neuman, for the NYT: F.D.A and Dairy Industry Spar Over Testing of Milk
Each year, federal inspectors find illegal levels of antibiotics in hundreds of older dairy cows bound for the slaughterhouse. Concerned that those antibiotics might also be contaminating the milk Americans drink, the Food and Drug Administration intended to begin tests this month on the milk from farms that had repeatedly sold cows tainted by drug residue….
The concern here is primarily about the (uncertain) health effects that such drug residue might have on those who consume milk. (And with the effect that over-use of antibiotics on farms can have for the long-term effectiveness of their use in humans.) From the point of view of the milk consumer, such drugs are an unnecessary artificial additive. But there’s nothing artificial about the competitive pressures that dairy farmers are under. That is the most natural thing in the world. And (a separate point) there’s nothing wrong with competition, either. Generally, when farmers compete — by producing better products, or by finding new efficiencies that allow them to lower prices — consumers win. So consumers should want farmers to engage in tough competition, but within limits. Those limits presumably include not just things like judicious use of antibiotics, but also working (within reason) with the regulatory agencies (like the FDA) tasked with acting as an external check on their competition.
But back to the issue of the long-term effectiveness of antibiotics in humans. According to the NYT story,
But food safety advocates said that the F.D.A.’s preliminary findings raised issues about the possible overuse of antibiotics in livestock, which many fear could undermine the effectiveness of drugs to combat human illnesses….
It’s worth noting that the worry here isn’t about effects on those who consume milk, but rather about effects on the entire population. That means what we’ve see here is a competitive domain (the dairy industry) that benefits one group (consumers of milk) but that also has effects on society as a whole.
(p.s. for more insight into the ethical implications of structured, limited competition, see the new blog Ethics For Adversaries.)