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who is right in the case of meatpacking and foodborne illness: Marx or Smith?

Since the early 1980s, E. coli & salmonella outbreaks have become more frequent, costly, and deadly. Every year close to 130,000 individuals living in the United States are hospitalized as a result of foodborne illness with over 3,000 annually culminating in death. The cause of the increased frequency of serious foodborne illness is often attributed to the industrialized agriculture system, in particular, feedlots (on which over half the cows are contaminated with E. coli bacteria) and high intensity feedlot practices, which include 1) using corn feed to help grow cattle faster and fatter for quick production at the cost of cattle health, and 2) centralized rendering of animal tissue with minimal oversight leading to easier contamination dispersed rapidly across national and international supply chains.

Consumer advocates blame a significant increase in government oversight since the 1980s when agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) were gutted of food inspectors in an attempt to promote pro-business policies. Whereas most food production facilities formerly had at least one inspection a year, these same facilities now on average receive only one inspection every five years. Furthermore, the meatpacking industry has vigorously fought regulation designed to modernize meat rendering with new machines and techniques to reduce foodborne illness (in recent years meatpackers selling to most fast food chains as well as school cafeterias have started to add ammonia to ground beef in an attempt to reduce E. coli outbreaks). Meatpacking industry advocates argue that it is the consumer’s responsibility to prepare food properly and kill off bacteria. Furthermore, they blame consumer demand for meat products that would not be met at affordable prices in sufficient quantity if the industry were forced to be more cautious during meat rendering.

Considering that Marx would argue that in a capitalist economy, the elite rule to the detriment of everyone else, and considering also that Smith argues that the free market is better at providing for the needs of society than government, decide who is right in the case of meatpacking and foodborne illness: Marx or Smith? Is this a case of elite control manipulating the power of government for private gain? Is it a case of consumers simply “choosing” the risk of foodborne illness in return for cheap and plentiful meat supplies? Or is it an example of market failure? If so, why? Is it because the elite cannot be trusted or because consumers are irrational?

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