Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The freedom to die horribly

Brace yourselves. I'm writing about quality standards again. Or rather I am writing about the supercilious twit Tim Worstall, who seems to think it's un-British to prosecute industrial scale food fraud.

Says he: "The point (about the EU) though, not being straight bananas per se, rather a legal or economic system which is so absurd as to apply the criminal law to the straightness of bananas. It’s a gross violation of the basic English (and by extension to the other Anglo Saxon societies) attitude towards law and regulation".

Except of course that the backbone of EU standards evolved from British Standards and have graduated to become the global norm. Setting standards (and enforcing them) is very much a tenet of British legal culture and something we have exported worldwide.

Worstall explains that the British approach is far less formal (which it isn't and never has been) but "Then along comes the European Union. And they see such a standard and make it part of the law. Transactions in bananas may only take place according to these rules. Which isn’t the point at all. In any and every industry we all know that there will be times when you say “Jim, here’s something, got some off spec stuff, want to make make an offer?”

And what does he suppose "Jim" is going to do with that off spec stuff? Bundle it up into gift baskets and distribute them to the elderly? Or are the people who buy "off spec stuff" criminal traders who will re-brand it and sell it on as kosher after tampering with it? I'ma gonna go with the latter.

But then there's something else about standards. Grading. These days there isn't really "off spec stuff" to sell off the back of a lorry. Let's take bananas for an example. What doesn't make the grade for the supermarket shelves is graded as ingredient quality which can go into processed foods like yoghurt. Further down the scale bananas can be processed into extracts etc. 

As Worstall notes, the system of standards is largely there so buyers know what they are getting and can buy in good faith. Since it is impractical for buyers to hop on a plane to inspect the goods we have a global system of standards enforcement which build confidence into the system. If standards are not enforced then buyers are taking a gamble - which removes trust and, crucially, continuity - upon which many jobs depend. Since production lines can be halted by "off spec stuff" at great cost to the producer, we rightly consider interference and wilful subversion of the system as criminal.

Expanding the point beyond bananas though, standards are part of a broader system to prevent a massive multi-billion dollar black market on food. There are many examples of industrial scale manipulation of supply chains. A food fraud scandal came to light in 2008, when over 20 companies were found to have added melamine, a flame retardant plastic, to baby formula in order to fool tests designed to ensure adequate protein content. Around 300,000 babies became ill in China, with tainted formula being linked to 54,000 hospitalisations and 6 deaths from kidney damage and malnutrition.

Additionally, the product category Herbs and Spices is listed as number four in the ranking of most frequent product alerts in the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF). About 75% of these reports are due to improper composition or contamination, both of which can affect the health of the consumer, as well as damage the brands of those involved in the supply chain. 

In 2005 over 600 finished food products were recalled in Europe and the US due to the presence of the carcinogenic red industrial floor dye "Sudan", which had been added to chilli powder to disguise its ageing.

This though, says Worstall is "unimportant stuff we’ll leave civil society to deal with. That is how we gain a free and liberal society and that is how we allow the room in an economy for innovation to occur, productivity to rise and thus we all get richer". 

Well he's sort of right. Criminal gangs are incredibly innovative, highly productive and somebody at least is getting rich off it. And it's not just food either. When an American Airlines plane smashed into a Colombian mountainside, outlaw salvagers didn't even wait for all 159 victims' bodies to be collected before they moved in.

"Using sophisticated tools, they extracted engine thrust reversers, cockpit avionics and other valuable components from the shattered Boeing 757 and then used helicopters to fly the parts off the steep ridge, U.S. and Colombian sources say. The parts were offered for sale in Miami, a hub of the thriving black market in recycled, stolen and counterfeit aircraft parts. "They wanted to sell the whole lot, including the landing gear," a law enforcement source said, speaking on condition of anonymity."

Parts illegally salvaged from crashes, counterfeit parts and other substandard components regularly find their way into the world's air fleets, sold at bargain prices, often with falsified documents about their origin or composition. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized $4 Million worth of counterfeit electronic components in Fiscal Year 2009. According to a 2001 publication produced by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, “as much as $2 billion in unapproved parts are now sitting on the shelves of parts distributors, airline, and repair stations".

But let's be fair to Mr Worstall. In his imagination there is no real societal harm in buying a few bent bananas off the back of a lorry - and that's the fullest extent of the nefarious activity in his world. You can see why he thinks what he thinks. And he probably remembers well how Neil Herron was hounded by Trading Standards for selling in imperial measures. Petty and vindictive enforcement is the problem, not the standards themselves. But guess what? Those were UK officials and petty, vindictive enforcement is also a very British thing.

Being fairer still, the big problem with the EU is that it has poisoned the well of trade regulation with its political agenda. It used economic integration to further its ambitions for political integration. There is good reason, therefore, not to accept all of it is in good good faith. Standards on bananas is one thing but when the rules also encompass requirements to measure carbon footprints and whether the supplier conforms with ILO labour conventions, the whole system begins to creak. 

Further still, as Worstall notes, the standards do not come from Brussels. Marketing standards for veg come either from UNECE or Codex. They are global standards - and the WTO agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade compels us to use them. This is why Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the USA and India have all recently reformed their own food safety laws. So, no, "bendy bananas" are not a good reason to leave the EU because it doesn't actually solve anything. There are good reasons for leaving but this most certainly isn't one of them.

More to the point, the reason the law embodies the global standards is because without a legal compulsion to use one of the recognised bodies the net result is dozens of competing standards which pretty much defeats the point of having them at all. 

Now you could expect this kind of low grade hackery from the media but Worstall is a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute. To have come all the way through the EU referendum and still hold the same opinions as your average kiptard displays a resolute determination to stay ignorant. If this is what the ASI uses for researchers, you can see why they need to plagiarise and steal the work of others. They have no talent of their own. 

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