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Arresting Contagion: Science, Policy, and Conflicts over Animal Disease Control

Author(s):Olmstead, Alan L.
Rhode, Paul W.
Reviewer(s):Craig, Lee A.

Published by EH.Net (October 2016)

Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode, Arresting Contagion: Science, Policy, and Conflicts over Disease Control. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. x + 465 pp. $50 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-674-72877-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Lee A. Craig, Department of Economics, North Carolina State University.

In Arresting Contagion, Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode, both well-known economic historians, provide readers with a narrative of the history of the war on food-borne microorganisms.  It is a gory affair.  The warriors are, on the one side, veterinarians, public health officials, and U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists, and on the other, Boophilus microplus (the Texas Fever tick), Mycobacterium bovis (the source of Bovine Tuberculosis), and a few other bugs that make us sick, or even kill us, when we consume their livestock hosts.  The bugs are aided by two sets of humans: One is a group the authors call “deniers,” who deny the bugs are a major problem.  They resist eradication because of its perceived costs.  The other group is dominated by free-market economists, who resist eradication because it typically requires the all too visible hand of government.

The authors date the beginning of serious efforts at eradication and prevention with the establishment, by the U.S. Congress, of the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) in 1884.   Prior to that event, the hodgepodge of state laws and state and federal court rulings that covered livestock inspection allowed ranchers, shippers, and packers to pass along adulterated products.  The BAI was not an immediate panacea.  It took decades of scientific investigation, bureaucratic maneuvering, and the evolution of case law before eradication and prevention became the norms rather than anomalies.  Olmstead and Rhode give us a detailed narrative of various aspects of the history of eradication and prevention, documenting the process for several of the deadliest and most costly bugs.   To follow the scientific account of the BAI’s efforts, readers may occasionally find themselves searching for their freshman biology text (or Wikipedia on their I-phones), but the effort is rewarding.  If you’re having no trouble digesting that brisket sandwich you ate at lunch, this volume will tell you why.

Readers looking for one-stop shopping on the history of the eradication of meat- and milk-borne microorganisms should look elsewhere.  This is not an encyclopedia.  Some bugs get a few chapters, others a chapter or less, and some little more than a mention.  Rather, the authors focus on a handful of the more troublesome critters that were particularly acute in the United States.

A theme that runs through the volume is the juxtaposition between two conflicting approaches to government-enforced inspection: the public choice school and the public interest school.  Proponents of the former are represented most prominently by economists who argue that federal meat inspection initiatives were the result of bureaucratic meddling to the benefit of rent-seeking suppliers, often small-scale suppliers who found their businesses swamped by the rise of the major packers.  Proponents of the public interest view come from a broader set of academic fields and argue meat inspection was a logical, and valuable, effort to address a market imperfection.

Olmstead and Rhode are not coy when it comes to choosing between the two arguments.  They unambiguously side with the public interest folks.  In the war on bugs, the authors’ heroes are the vets, scientists and government bureaucrats who gave us (forced upon us, in the public choice view) federal meat inspection.  To support their case, the volume offers estimates of the rates of return on eradication and inspection efforts.  Even when biased downward, the figures are enormous.  For example, the authors’ estimate of the benefit-to-cost ratio of the eradication of foot-and-mouth disease is greater than 40 to 1 (p. 136).  The comparable figure for Texas Fever is between 9 and 20, depending upon the years in question (p. 273).  While these figures might seem high, the authors bias downward their estimates, and it is worth noting that in the late nineteenth-century the aggregate value of the nation’s livestock was greater than the capitalized value of its railroads (p. 9).  (Perhaps Irene Neu, George Rogers Taylor, and Carter Goodrich chose the wrong industry in the pre-dawn of the Cliometrics era.  One can only imagine the subsequent course of the discipline had they chosen to analyze livestock rather than railroads.)  By any reasonable standard the magnitude of the returns to eradication represent large net benefits.  In the authors’ view those benefits were not “led by an invisible hand.”  Indeed, near the end of the volume, the authors summarize the U.S. eradication experience: “Success in the United States required the unflinching use of police power and great expense, but the net benefits were enormous” (p. 301).  That is a good, concise summary of the volume itself.

Some EH.Net patrons will probably lament the volume’s lack of explicit cliometric rigor.  For example, the estimates of the returns to various eradication efforts are little more than back-of-the-envelope exercises, albeit relatively sophisticated back-of-the-envelope exercises.  For their part, the authors make no apologies for trying to provide a history that is accessible to an audience beyond EH.Neters.  How you feel about such efforts will help guide you toward or away from this well-written history of an important but oft-overlooked topic.

Vox populi suggests a receptive lay audience for the authors’ message.  I have taught undergraduates off and on for over thirty years and frequently poll them on their support for various public policies.  Support for free trade consistently runs about fifty-fifty; roughly a third of the students will openly denounce the minimum wage; and only a small and declining few will defend agricultural price supports; but I’ve never heard a student say meat inspection is a bad idea!

Lee A. Craig is Alumni Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Economics at North Carolina State University.  He is the author of Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economic Planning and Policy
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII