This article by Marion Nestle provides a short but substantive look into some of the externalized food costs that keep food prices lower than they might otherwise be in a food production system that doesn’t prioritize maximizing economic profits. I was particularly interested in seeing, in cold numerical terms, how external costs factor in (or not) to the prices consumers see on the shelves, especially since these facts came straight from the horse’s mouth. For example: “The CEO of a large U.S. meat company told me that if he raised wages by $3, he could hire locals and not have to deal with immigrant labor. But then he would have to raise the price of his meat by 3 cents per pound (I’m not kidding). That amount, he claimed, would price him out of competitiveness.” Also, “officials of one vegetable-packing company told me that the impressively comprehensive food safety system they instituted in the wake of recalls raised the cost of their products by only one penny a case (I’m not kidding about this, either).” All external costs obviously can’t be quantified, but these tidbits shed some light into the numbers game being played behind closed doors.
While I’m still a little uncomfortable with thinking of obesity as a fully fledged public health issue that necessitates government intervention, I can’t deny two things: 1) Right now, “cheap” food equals “junk” food — “high in calories and low in nutritional value”; and 2) “When food is cheap, people eat more of it. Abundant cheap food leads companies to aggressively market their products to be eaten any time, any place and in very large amounts – all of which promote biologically irresistible overeating.” I do believe that a system that churns out unsafe and/or unhealthy food with high external costs because it’s cheaper to do so is unequivocally wrong. If food industries can’t hold themselves accountable to being responsible producers, policy must fill in the gap.