Will The Food Industry Ever Swallow Transparency's Bitter Pill?

from the who's-next-for-openness? dept

A fascinating trend in recent years has been the gradual move from a presumption of secrecy to one of openness, transparency and sharing. This began with free software/open source, and has progressively spread to include areas such as open content, open access, open data, open science and open government.

Here's the latest field where people are advocating a more open approach:

Food costs are on the rise, as are obesity and diabetes. Food recalls, environmental pollution, and food insecurity are all far too common. The system clearly needs to be re-engineered to better serve the needs of everyone involved.

But before thinking about redesign, we need to really understand how the current system works. Doing so requires the ability to examine the different pieces of the system and supply chain, something currently impossible given the proprietary nature of the food and agriculture industries.

Herein lies the major roadblock and opportunity- hacking the food system requires creating incentives to move from closed, proprietary approaches to open ones.
Providing detailed information about the entire food chain from production through distribution to sales would allow all kinds of interesting data mash-ups to be created: showing how far your food must travel to your table, how long it takes, even things like your cumulative daily pesticide intake.

There would be clear benefits for the companies involved in production and consumption: it would allow foodstuffs to be tracked more precisely, trends analyzed, techniques optimized and savings identified. But it would also make it much easier to expose facts that the food industry would probably rather you didn't know - about what's in the food you eat, how it was produced and who owns the companies involved. Which means, of course, that it is likely to fight this move to openness with every means known to lobbyists.

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Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Rekrul, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 12:14am

    I'd like to see the law changed to require companies to use realistic "serving" sizes on their labels. Who gets 4.5 servings out of a 20oz can of fruit? Who eats just three cookies? Or uses just half a cup of tomato sauce on their spaghetti?

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 12:14am

    But you must agree that one shouldn't manipulate production chain unless he/she understand how individual processes are supposed to work, and why they exist. This is quite logical.

     

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  3.  
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    xenomancer (profile), Jan 6th, 2012 @ 12:15am

    Its a Jungle in There!

    You'd think that the food industry would have figured out transparency's benefits after "The Jungle" came out during the industrial revolution... Then again, maybe there's digital rats they need to hide?

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 12:19am

    I'd like to see whether all the "supposed healthy food" is really made with ingradients that are healthy for us. Nowadays even some famously named brands which used to pride for having strict procedure in processing food are discovered to use food additives to cover their use for lower quality food sources, and this is scary.

     

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  5.  
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    xenomancer (profile), Jan 6th, 2012 @ 12:19am

    Re:

    If I recall correctly [CITATION NEEDED], serving sizes are based on the size of the serving analyzed and not on the size of the serving intended to be consumed. Brian Regan's analysis of Fig Newtons is particularly enlightening in this respect.

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 12:21am

    Open government? Transparency?!?

    I got lost at the end of the first paragraph. You clearly don't live in Obamaland.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 2:20am

    Re: Open government? Transparency?!?

    There are other countries out there, y'know. Iceland, for example.

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 2:26am

    Re: Re: Open government? Transparency?!?

    No shit, Sherlock. Did you get lost after my first sentence?
    Techdirt itself does reside in sunny California y'know.

     

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  9.  
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    Killercool (profile), Jan 6th, 2012 @ 3:41am

    I don't think this is going to happen.

    Not when the food industry is still allowed to label who knows what as "spices" and "flavoring."

    "We thought it was a little boring, so we jazzed it up a little with a bit of crude oil."

    "Pbbbthhbth! What?! Really?! It doesn't say that on the label!"

    "Oh yeah, it does. It's right there, see? 'Natural flavors.'"

     

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  10.  
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    abc gum, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 4:32am

    Re: Open government? Transparency?!?

    Yeah, because it was never like this before .. sheesh

     

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  11.  
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    abc gum, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 4:37am

    Re:

    "you must agree that one shouldn't manipulate production chain unless he/she understand how individual processes are supposed to work, and why they exist"

    One thing about food production is really obvious - feed lots should not drain into crop fields. IIRC, this was found to be root cause of multiple instances of e.coli contamination.

     

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  12.  
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    The Mighty Buzzard (profile), Jan 6th, 2012 @ 4:42am

    Seriously?

    WTF does this have to do with tech or IP issues, aside from adding on a very thin bit to an otherwise obvious proposal of "Give us the info we want so we can bust your balls"?

    I'm not actually against the proposal but neither do I think we have any particular moral high ground from which to demand it. Is anyone over beer buying age actually stupid enough to buy into the whole Everything Must Be Open line of bullshit?

    Thanks just the same but I'd rather enjoy my sausage than know all the nasty things that go into making it. At the very least it gives me a much more resilient digestive tract than people who only eat organic vegetables that had Phish played to them while they were being grown.

     

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  13.  
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    abc gum, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 4:44am

    Re:

    "I'd like to see whether all the "supposed healthy food" is really made with ingradients that are healthy for us."

    Rest assured, Trans Fat was not created for your benefit, neither was High Fructose Corn Syrup.

     

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  14.  
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    abc gum, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 4:50am

    Re: Seriously?

    Sausage is good. I would pay more for one that did not include the "extra bits", if I trusted the producer. I much prefer to shop at the local country butcher than the city supermart.

     

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  15.  
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    Michael, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 4:52am

    Re: Seriously?

    So because you don't care about what you're consuming, nobody else should have the right to know? Apparently, complacency has made you soft.

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 5:03am

    Re: Re:

    While the former definitely has been proven to cause harm, can you link to a single credible (not debunked) study on the latter?

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 5:20am

    Re: Re: Open government? Transparency?!?

    Ok, and your point is?

    Mine is this...
    One of Obama's campaign promises was specifically "transparency" and "open government" which was not fulfilled. It's been quite the opposite as Mike has made clear many times. Other Presidents of the past NEVER promised this but you think it doesn't matter in this case just because it's the norm? I think politicians should be held accountable when they promise one thing to get elected and deliver another thing after they get elected.

    I know this topic is about the food industry and I know Glyn is from London, but when posting a story that includes "transparency" and "open government" on an American website, in an election year, did anyone really think this would be ignored?

     

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  18.  
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    abc gum, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 5:21am

    Re: Re: Re:

    "can you link to a single credible (not debunked) study on the latter?"

    Why would you assume all studies on the subject are fraudulent? Have you found many instances of this or are you simply stating your bias?

    Princeton researchers find that high-fructose corn syrup prompts considerably more weight gain
    http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S26/91/22K07/

    disclaimer: I did not investigate the debunkiness of this article ... however the contents support research found elsewhere.

     

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  19.  
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    Drak, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 5:23am

    I saw a nice image of a improved food label the other day somewhere. Let me link it before SOPA goes active real fast, you can delete my link/comment when the law goes active.

    http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/flash/health/pdf/beforeafterlabel.pdf

    I know, link to a .pdf..... Anyhow even a change to this would be nice.

     

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  20.  
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    abc gum, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 5:27am

    Re: Re: Re: Open government? Transparency?!?

    "Other Presidents of the past NEVER promised this but you think it doesn't matter in this case just because it's the norm?"

    Ok, I agree that other prez have not reneged on that particular campaign promise. I do, however, recall other campaign promises made by other prez that were not met.

    Politicians promise much, deliver little ... welcome to the real world, enjoy your stay.

     

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  21.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 5:55am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Open government? Transparency?!?

    "I do, however, recall other campaign promises made by other prez that were not met."

    I recall many more myself, even by Obama. Hmmm... I seem to remember another Obama promise that he'd get the lobbyists off of Capital Hill, but (sigh) now we have SOPA.

    Oh! and Gitmo was going to be closed too, but it's still there and now, thanks to the new NDAA it may become the new American outpost for our already overcrowded jails...

    "Well, we need some jail space for all these new video streaming felons. Hey! He had a gun. Just charge him as a terrorist and send him to Gitmo so we have room!"

     

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  22.  
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    MonkeyFracasJr (profile), Jan 6th, 2012 @ 6:28am

    Re: Caloric data

    Calories from fats vs. total calories is not "Useless data". Knowing that a product has a high ratio of calories from fat doesn't mean much if your are looking at butter, but it does if you are looking at processed foods. (I know, processed foods are almost always evil, but ...) If you have a choice between two similar products and one is 70% calories from fat and the other is 30%, you have a choice to make depending on if you are trying to avoid direct fats or are trying to add them to complete your desired recipe outcome.

     

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  23.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 7:00am

    Great idea if you can get ADM, Cargill and Monsanto on-board.

     

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  24.  
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    ChrisB (profile), Jan 6th, 2012 @ 7:10am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    High Fructose Corn Syrup is a mixture of Glucose and Fructose. The number tells you how much Fructose is in it: HFCS-55 has 55% Fructose and 45% Glucose.

    Sucrose (Sugar) is simple Glucose and Fructose tied together with a weak bond. So essentially, Sugar is HFCS-50. People who tell you there is some big difference are wrong.

    Fructose is generally more harmful/fattening than Glucose, and most studies that find some kind of problem with HFCS are testing ones with more Fructose than Glucose.

    Here's the problem. Both HFCS and sugar are bad for you. But in the past, people had a sugar bowl and they would put sugar on a few things and in their coffee. Now, HFCS is in everything (mainly to deal with the fact that the "fat free" fad has made food taste crappy). So now we can't avoid it.

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 8:24am

    Transperency absolutely!

    From the documentary "Food Inc." I learned that many Midwestern states ban anyone taking pictures of any feedlot or food processing operation. That's an insane concession given to calorie corps who don't want the public to know how their food is produced.

    I support a national law, even at the constitutional level, that any food processing facility, from farm to grocery store, be open to inspection from any consumer, including photography, for the safety and welfare of all of us!

     

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  26.  
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    Atkray (profile), Jan 6th, 2012 @ 8:34am

    Re: Seriously?

    "WTF does this have to do with tech or IP issues"

    Because inevitably when you talk about the food chain you end up at Monsanto.

     

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  27.  
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    Ben, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 9:36am

    One method of farming

    I grew up on a farm and have no issue telling anyone about it. To get a feel for the situation I'll first describe the location. We had a half section of land (equivalent to 320 acres) and through that ran a river which occasionally (about once every 10 years or so) flooded out a large portion of our land, and regularly had smaller floods in the spring time. We grew our own feed crops which primarily consisted of hay for bales or silage. Despite this it was not uncommon for a few bales to have to be purchased due to weather conditions resulting in bad crops. We had between 80 and 120 cows depending on the year which were rotated through the various fields. 2-4 bulls are kept on hand and replaced every few years as necessary to prevent inbreeding. Calving was in late February, early march, because the weather was warming but not so warm as to cause large amounts of water creating safer conditions for the new born calves (although a lot of farmers calve in January.) Male calves are then castrated to minimize their desire to destroy things, then sold at a local auctions, from their I assume they are taken to some slaughter house, i don't know. Female calves are either sold or kept as needed with older cows being sold off, again, as too where it is hard to say. While on the farm they are well taken care of, nutritional supplements supplied as needed to help keep them healthy and any medical requirements handled ASAP. We did not use a feed lot, our cows were free to roam the field they were in and were rotated through the cow fields to ensure they always had sufficient food supply, although sometimes they were picky eaters. Babies were hand fed if necessary but a surrogate mother was often found for them. It was a lot of work and we were not rich by any means, my father holding a second job in cement work to augment the lack of money that farmers get.

    Honestly the best way to get out of crap ways of farming/ranching is to make it worthwhile to use better methods. We did a good job I think but feedlots are common and more regulations just makes the job harder and more expensive. Monetize better methods and farmers can afford to use them. That way farming can become a proper job and not a full time hobby. Failure to realize that is forcing people into high intensive feedlot systems which are hard on the animals and result in toxic zones and waste.

     

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  28.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 9:43am

    Openness?

    Actually I see a lot of things becoming less open in the last 10 years, possibly as a backlash against the relative openness that preceded.

     

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  29.  
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    Machin Shin (profile), Jan 6th, 2012 @ 10:08am

    Openness about food?

    Openness in food?

    https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/petitions#!/response/food-safety-and-raw-milk

    There is our governments position on things. For those of you who want a summary here goes.

    People created a petition asking for raw milk to be legal to buy. It is currently illegal in a lot of the US for you to buy raw milk to drink. These people understand what they are asking for and any risks they might take in having raw milk.

    The governments response is basically "We know what is best for you. So sit down, shut up, and do as you are told."

    Now please tell me why it is any business of the government what I choose to eat or drink? The only regulation of any type the government should be doing for food is regulating that is has to be clearly labeled as what it is. If I want raw milk that is my right. If I want to eat deer meat I should be able to go buy some. So long as the seller is honest about what the food is then I they should be allowed to sell it and me be allowed to buy it.

     

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  30.  
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    WillBest, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 12:38pm

    you know

    The reason they don't want to tell you is because you wouldn't eat it if you knew.

    The problem then becomes one of cost. Your food would litereally be 2-3 times more expensive if it was produced in a manner that wouldn't creep most people out.

     

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  31.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 2:41pm

    Re: Re:

    I think what he means is that if I buy a bag of chips it should say: x calories per bag. Not x servings per bag with y calories per serving. I had the hardest time calculating the actual calories in microwave popcorn. It is obfuscated and confusing. They list popped and unpopped(who eats unpopped POPcorn?) servings

     

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  32.  
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    Lleuad Ci (profile), Jan 6th, 2012 @ 4:29pm

    Ingredients

    Aside from nutrition, transparency on ingredients needs to exist.
    For example, up to 12% permeate fluid being added to so-called fresh milk.

    And for those with allergies, complete declaration of additives. eg: Sulfites < 50ppm.

     

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  33.  
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    abc gum, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 5:52pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Open government? Transparency?!?

    Ok - I get it ... You do not like our sitting prez.

    In case you were unaware, pointing out the faults of others is a fools game, engaged in by everyone from time to time.

    Protip: When one finds the urge irresistible, it is best to include a comparison to others in the same position and how they dealt with similar issues.

     

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  34.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 7:11pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Oops. I once (although it's long time ago) heard doctor saying fructose is healthier choice because it's less likely to cause tooth decay.

    And once upon a time, there is a brand of "vegetable butter" that's made of hydrogenated vegetable oil claim to be more healthy because it's made with vegetable oil, and it should be better choice for our heart. (Of course we all now know that it contains full of trans-fat, which is not good for our heart's health.)

     

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  35.  
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    Rekrul, Jan 7th, 2012 @ 2:36am

    Re: Re: Re:

    You're exactly right.

    Many people look at the info on a product and only see the percentages. For example, my friend buys various types of granola bars, which often come packaged in pairs. He looks at the label and sees that it only has 12% fat per serving. He fails to notice that a "serving" is only a single bar, and that you need to double all the numbers if you're going to eat both.

    The example of the 20oz can of fruit was taken from a can of pineapple chunks I currently have in the cabinet. The can claims that there are 4.5 servings per can, but yet I usually eat half the can at a time. It's really not that much, just a small bowl full. So to figure out the numbers, I have to multiply all of then by 4.5, then divide the result in half.

    Or spaghetti sauce; Does anyone actually measure how much sauce they put in the pot? I typically just dump the entire 24oz container into a pot, heat it up, put what looks like a good amount on my spaghetti and eat it. It might be 3/4 of a cup, it might be a whole cup, it might be more, considering I usually have two helpings. Then I refrigerate whatever is leftover.

     

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  36.  
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    chris, Jan 8th, 2012 @ 7:48pm

    Re:

    Those serving sizes are correct for all who eat a proper 7 course meal :)

     

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  37.  
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    chris, Jan 8th, 2012 @ 7:50pm

    Buy Local. Buy Organic. Problem solved.

     

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  38.  
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    Toot Rue, Jan 9th, 2012 @ 1:42pm

    Re: Re: Seriously?

    Do you have the right to know? Probably not. Do you have the right to pay for food where the entire process of production is transparent? Absolutely - vote with your wallet, and I'll vote with mine.

     

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  39.  
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    bjupton (profile), Jan 11th, 2012 @ 12:47am

    Re: Re: Re: Seriously?

    I'm really quite tired of this bit of libertarian orthodoxy that says "do you have a right to x? no, but you can pay for x!"

    As though that is the same thing.

    And some how this gets passed off as better.

    I mean, the whole drive for libertarianism was that it would result in better outcomes. But now the floor is gone. I mean, serious people think that 'you get what you pay for' should go to the point of making a choice to eat at the wrong fast food establishment could result in certain death.

    Don't worry though. It should only take a few dozen deaths before that hot new burger chain suffers enough market loss to make it worth their while to quit skimping by using broken down refrigeration equipment.

     

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