At Least Baseball Won’t Kill You.

I stopped being a fan of Alex Rodriquez years ago when he left the Mariners, so I was not that particularly bothered when he was banned from baseball for steroid use.

A-Rod’s banning, along with the past steroid-induced sins of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and others, show that player punishment or embarrassment does not always stop the crime.

No serious person can believe that players have an incentive to play “clean.”  More homers and strikeouts mean more fans in the stands, or glued to TV commercials, and even more revenue for the owners.  More revenue for owners translates into bonuses for players, incentivizing players to cheat.  Owners talk all season about the evils of steroid use as they stuff great gobs of money into their pockets that they make from players advantaged by steroids.

Money talks and ethics walk.

Players are the well-paid chattel of owners who want to win at any cost.  Owners may well feign ignorance of steroid-induced homers or strikes, but they covet them nonetheless.  Banning A-Rod changes nothing.

Want to change the direction of baseball overnight?  Change the incentives.  If the Yankees had been banned from Baseball for a year and a half – not A-Rod – you can bet that no player in baseball would touch the stuff again.

So, what does cantaloupe have to do with Baseball?  Much, in addition to both being round.  Like players and the baseball industry, incentives are wrong with cantaloupe growers – actually all food – and the retail industry.

In 2011, Listeria-tainted cantaloupes grown in Eastern Colorado sickened 147 in two dozen states, killing at least 33.  It was the largest foodborne outbreak death toll in the United States in 100 years.  That is saying a lot given that the Centers for Disease Control and prevention estimate that food sickens 48,000,000, hospitalizes 135,000 and kills over 3,000 each year.

The year before, a third generation cantaloupe grower had been enticed by a broker-shipper preferred by Walmart and Kroger to expand its market nationwide.  An auditor recommended by Walmart inspected the farm and packing shed in 2011, while the cantaloupes were actually being washed by un-chlorinated, Listeria-tainted water.  The farm, as with most food audits, got a superior rating of 96%.  That was the green light for the cantaloupes to ship to your local Walmart or Kroger.

Those same retailers distance themselves from such behavior, clucking constantly about food safety from “farm to fork” and creating a “culture of food safety.”  They hire auditors as middlemen in the food-safety chain to give them cover to ignore food safety risks.

The grower of the tainted cantaloupe has gone bankrupt.  The grower is also facing criminal misdemeanor charges for selling food considered to be “adulterated,” which according to Federal law is food that “bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance, which may render it injurious to health.”  These charges, unlike a felony charge, “do not require proof of fraudulent intent, or even of knowing or willful conduct.”  The grower does face fines and jail nonetheless.

Countless other growers and manufacturers of food produced in the last decades have faced both civil and criminal liability – yet food poisoning continues.

Sound a bit like players facing suspension over and over again?

Retailers, like team owners, require audits, set the rules, called specifications, for how food – like cantaloupes – should be safely produced.  They then ignore their own rules because living by their rules costs a cent or two more, and that seems not worth the price.  Why?  Because just like Baseball owners who can pass the buck to the players, it is not retailers who are on the hook if there is a problem – the growers are.

Team owners squeeze their players by demanding performance.  No home runs or strike-outs – no place on the team.  Retailers squeeze their suppliers on price.  Not the lowest price?  You are out.  In fact, retailers squeeze growers for the last bit of profit, leaving little for growers to invest in producing safer food – an oddly perverse incentive.

Want to change the direction of food safety overnight?  Change the incentives.

Most Americans do not realize that the retailers they buy their food from are mainly insulated from civil and criminal liability.   Only their suppliers have liability.  But, if we were to put the onus of compensating customers for medical bills and lost wages onto the retailers that profit the most from the sale, their incentives to buy food that will not kill you would go up a lot.

Want to change the incentive of a retailer who sells you food that can make you sick or kill you?  Have them face jail time or fines if they do.

Want to make food safer from “farm to fork” in a “culture of food safety?”  Pay fair wages to farm workers and fair prices to growers.  Both are investments in safer food.

Like steroid use in baseball, food safety will not change until those with the most power have the incentive to change behavior.  Banning players or bankrupting cantaloupe growers does nothing to change the dynamic.  Banning baseball owners would stop steroid use overnight.  Fining or jailing retailers who sell food that kills people – well, that will do it.