Opinion: Super inspections

POSTED: 10/6/11 12:49 PM

Lol, we read with interest that the government is getting ready for an all out control that involves the department of Economic Affairs, Public Health authorities, the Labor Department and the Fire Department. We looked at the calendar to make sure, but no, April Fool’s Day has long passed and the next one won’t be around for another half year or so.
The announcement of the super control comes across a bit like: now we’re going to control everything we have neglected for the past forty years. Businesses get ready, the harassment season has started.
Don’t get us wrong, we agree that businesses ought to have everything in order. But to drop an all out control on the whole community like this will most likely work well on those muscles that make people laugh (or groan), but will in the long term do nothing to actually achieve something meaningful.
How silly all this is? Have a good look around in local supermarkets. Remember that there have been a couple of raids in the recent past whereby some of these supermarkets were almost literally nailed to the wall of public shame because of all kinds of violations? Did you think the situation has changed in the meantime? Or do you, just like we do, still find rotten fruit and vegetables and products with expired sales dates on the shelves.
Right. So what we need is not an all out war on the whole business community, but sensible and structural control mechanisms that inspire businesses to play by the rules.
Elsewhere on this page under the headline Incentives, we point out what drives human behavior. Businesses are operated by human beings and those human beings react to incentives, or, if you prefer another expression, to pay-offs. What’s in it for me?
Restaurants will be checked for food and fire safety, we read. Well, nothing wrong with that. But why do inspectors always find violations? That’s because there is no incentive for the restaurant owner to play by the rules. Maybe there is, but the bottom line is that restaurant owners think there is no incentive.
This false perception leads to cutting corners. Why keep food at safe refrigeration temperatures if it is possible to keep it at slightly higher temperatures as well? It’s cheaper, and as long as clients don’t get sick, nobody is the wiser.
Like other business owners, restaurateurs also take into account the likelihood that they will be caught. If the chance is low, there is no incentive to keep the kitchen clean and to store food properly.
Levitt and Dubner would probably reason like this: if restaurant owners knew for sure that the penalty for food safety violations is execution on the spot, no questions asked, all restaurant owners (except the suicidal ones) would keep their kitchens clean as a whistle, and they would also store their food at the right temperatures.
Execution on the spot is obviously not a penalty any government is able to justify, let alone (pardon the pun) execute.
But if restaurant owners knew for sure, for instance, that they will be inspected at irregular intervals several times a year, that the inspectors will publish the results of their inspection on the government information page in the local newspapers, and that they will also report when a restaurant has corrected a situation, they may be more accommodating
The same goes for other businesses. True, it is a name and shame policy, but it is not necessarily bad for business. Every business gets a fair chance to avoid negative publicity by playing by the rules. It gives them a leg up over other businesses that don’t give a rat’s behind. So in the end the outcome is positive, both for decent businesses and for their clients. It is, in a way, Levitt and Dubner’s incentive-principle at work.

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