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Culture Of Risk-Aversion Hurts The Poor

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 11, 2006

An article in the local newspaper is headlined Publix enforces limits on donations.

Has Publix’ heart gone hard?

Twenty nonprofit organizations in Palm Beach County cut their feeding programs to the needy a week after food giant Publix Super Markets began enforcing its longstanding policy banning donations of meat, fruit and vegetables.

What would have motivated this sudden turn of events:

A Publix spokeswoman said Palm Beach Harvest in West Palm Beach delivers the perishable food in non-refrigerated vehicles, violating the company’s food safety standards.

But does this make sense?

“I don’t see much difference in the time you and I get our groceries from our cars and put them in our refrigerators and the time Palm Beach Harvest volunteers get the food and put them in our coolers,” said Deborah Morgan, executive director of Palm Beach Harvest. “We don’t give to any agencies that don’t have the proper facilities and people to handle the food.”

Maybe the real concern Publix has is litigation?

Morgan also cited the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects food donors from lawsuits if donated food is rancid.

Well, have people been getting sick?

Charities that receive food from Palm Beach Harvest say they’ve been serving it for years and no one has fallen ill.

Does it really matter?

Agencies such as J.A.Y. Ministries in Belle Glade and Hope House of the Palm Beaches closed their food programs as a result of Publix’s decision.

Can’t another chain fill the slack?

Other supermarket chains, such as Albertsons, don’t donate fresh produce and meat, either, company officials said.

Jennifer Vroman, an Albertsons spokeswoman, said while the chain donates to the Second Harvest Food Bank, it doesn’t give on a store level, because of food safety reasons.

Although Publix denies any connection to the E. coli/spinach situation, it strains credulity to believe that all the publicity related to food safety didn’t motivate someone to take a look at enforcing policies that had long been forgotten.

If so, we can count the poor of Palm Beach County, Florida, who include many migrant farm workers, as victims of the spinach/E.coli disaster.

Or more generally, these are the victims of a culture that has lost all tolerance for risk and all ability to evaluate the real-life situations of people.

There is risk related to food safety issues, but they are hypothetical risks that affect an infinitesimal percentage of people in any serious way.

Publix happens to be very generous. They donate a lot of money and give away a lot of canned goods. It is not about their generosity. They may even yet find a way to help resolve this specific problem by donating a refrigerated truck or some other accommodation.

But in suddenly withdrawing this food, they were reflecting our society’s increasing inability to make rational choices between real options.

In listening to the FDA chatter this last month over food safety, you find no willingness or ability to think about the cost of what they propose. In the last 10 years, including this most virulent outbreak on spinach, we know of five people who died.

If over the next ten years the industry winds up spending $200 million to reduce that death total to three — is that a good idea?

Shouldn’t our government at least look at what that $200 million could do for public health if invested elsewhere?

It is not fair to pick on Publix. Almost all retailers have the same policy, but the intellectual content of the decision to not distribute food because of the hypothetical risk of a foodborne illness is to say that it is better someone should go hungry than to run the infinitesimal risk of a food borne illness.

It is a mode of thought going on all over the West. European opponents of genetically modified organisms have urged starving nations in Africa to reject GMO grains and other foods because it is bad for their health.

The grotesque nature of that demand still startles.

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