That doesn't justify mislabeling. But if a food retailer lies, there are legal remedies. The mere knowledge of liability, not to mention lost reputation, incentivizes truth telling. More vigilance might have stopped the faux beef sellers in Europe. But no government can prevent us from all harm. Nor should we want it to. Vigilance is costly and our governments are already doing too much.
As it turns out, the scandal might have originated from an altogether different horse policy. Romania recently outlawed horse-drawn carts on major roadways. Horses became less valuable, and emaciated equine began roaming the countryside. Sound familiar? A glut of horses caused the price of horse meat to fall. Falling profitability is no excuse for dishonesty, and the Romanians deny any wrongdoing, but the Romanian policy clearly increased the incentive to cheat.
The lesson from these equine scandals isn't necessarily that the government should have been doing more. Rather, politicians should learn what every good horse intuitively knows: Look before you leap.
Lusk is a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University and author of a forthcoming book “The Food Police: A Well Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate.”