Playing chicken with farmers’ livelihoods

Birds_Free_RangeThe Salt Lake Tribune recently ran a story about how federal meat processing regulations recently stopped a local natural-chicken farming operation from processing the chickens of other small chicken farming operations, leaving no way for these latter farms to get their chickens processed and sold.

No one on these farms had done anything that caused a public health scare. No one had gotten sick from the chickens being processed. Regulators who were double-checking the federal rules on meat processing found that this natural-chicken farmer was not permitted to process the chickens from other farms, so they shut down the processing of chickens from other chicken farms “to protect the public.”

Consider that. What is the public being protected from? Certainly not an actual public health problem, since there was no actual health problem being caused by the chicken farming and processing. Instead we are being “protected” from the possibility of a public health problem that might, in theory, be caused at some point in the future by a chicken processing operation that is processing chickens from farms it does not control. So we are preventing innocent people from pursuing legal, legitimate ways of supporting themselves and their families for no other reason than the possibility that their way of doing business might happen, in the future, to cause a public health scare.

So much for justice – being innocent until proven guilty – and the freedom to make a living.

This simple story, though small in financial impact, illustrates quite well how the regulatory state can grow and grow to the point of unjustly quashing real and concrete economic prosperity and freedom in the name of a vague future protection against imagined health and safety concerns. Supposedly, these people are being prevented from moving up the economic ladder for their own good and the good of the community.

And of course, it doesn’t help that the people who made (and the only people who can change) these regulations live thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C. – and have no idea of the conditions on the ground that their regulations will impact. And of course these regulations are promulgated for “our own good,” because people in Utah who actually understand the situation are evidently unqualified to handle it from a regulatory perspective.

A final insight from this story is how modern regulation so often gives the advantage to large businesses over small (and often more innovative) businesses. Requiring a chicken farming operation to keep its own processing outfit makes both economic and safety sense when you reach a scale where hundreds of thousands or millions of chickens are being processed, perhaps from different geographic regions with varying weather and animal health conditions. But for small local farmers that all raise their chickens under similar conditions in the same geographic area, requiring each of them to maintain its own processing operation is both nonsensical and financially unfeasible. Although it does help the large chicken farming operations, which would just not have to worry about those pesky local chicken farmers eating into their market share.

There is room for debate and how chicken farms and meat processing ought to be regulated. But when those regulations pre-empt legal and legitimate ways of making a living for vague theoretical reasons, while leaving the people whose livelihoods are being regulated powerless because the rules are made and enforced by bureaucrats who live thousands of miles away and are not accountable to the people, you are actually preventing the common good that government regulation ought to be enabling. And ultimately, that does not do anyone much good.