Using Insurance to Regulate Food Safety: Field Notes from the Fresh Produce Sector
New Mexico Law Review
oodborne illness is a public health problem of pandemic proportions. In the United States alone, contaminated food sickens an estimated 48 million consumers annually, causing 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Nowhere is this crisis more acute than in the fresh produce sector, where microbial contamination in growing fields and packing houses has been responsible for many of the nation’s largest and deadliest outbreaks. This Article examines emerging efforts by private insurance companies to regulate food safety on farms that grow fresh produce.
Previous studies of using insurance to regulate food safety rely on economic theories that yield competing conclusions. Optimists argue that insurance can promote efficient risk reduction. Skeptics counter that insufficient information regarding the root causes of contamination renders insurance impotent to reduce food safety risk. This Article adds a sociolegal perspective to this debate. Based on interviews with insurance professionals, the Article documents how, notwithstanding limited information, underwriters employ a variety of techniques to encourage compliance with government food safety regulations and conformity to industry standards. These techniques include premium discounts for clients who adopt state-of-the-art food safety practices, coverage exclusions for high-risk activities, and loss control advice about how to avoid contamination.
Insurance plays a growing and potentially transformative role in advancing food safety. Government food safety regulation has traditionally been hampered by inadequate inspection resources. This Article advocates expanding insurance to fill oversight gaps in the U.S. food safety system, and it offers specific recommendations for how to nurture emerging markets for food safety coverage.
The findings presented in this Article have implications for understanding how insurance regulates risk more generally. Economic analysis of many well-established types of insurance—for example, life, health, homeowners, and auto—emphasizes the role of actuarial data in pricing premiums, determining coverage limits, and informing loss control advice. However, the underwriting professionals in this Article who describe their efforts to improve food safety on farms tell a different story. They operate in an emerging market with a low volume of claims and a dearth of actuarial data. Three aspects of their work stand out. First, underwriting in this area is more impressionistic than economic analysis assumes. When assessing the risk of microbial contamination on farms, underwriters rely more on their intuitions about a farmer’s competence and on media coverage of high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks than on actuarial data. Second, the mindset of these underwriters is more administrative than economic. They think in terms of regulatory compliance and standards conformity rather than optimal risk reduction. Third, farm size determines the role of insurance in managing risk. High-premium coverage for larger farms provides more underwriting resources for risk management than low-premium policies priced for small farms. These findings suggest that although economics explains the logic of insurance as form of risk regulation, understanding how underwriters regulate risk in practice, especially in emerging markets, requires attention to professional judgment, bureaucratic thinking, and resource constraints.
Timothy D. Lytton, Using Insurance to Regulate Food Safety: Field Notes from the Food Produce Sector, 52 N.M. L. Rev. 282 (2022).
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Using Insurance to Regulate Food Safety: Field Notes from the Fresh Produce Sector,
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University of New Mexico School of Law