Can Ethical Decisions Be Life or Death Choices?

Can Ethical Decisions Be Life or Death Choices?

ABC news reports that Consumer Reports, the magazine, has released a new study that reports the following:

The bad news from a new study is that two thirds of store-bought chicken was found to be contaminated with potentially harmful bacteria.

This is a clear situation where ethics and morality have a role to play. Okay, now, ask yourself, can you ethically sell chickens contaminated with bacteria? Let’s be clear about the consquences. We are talking about food poisoning. Let me quote from wikipedia:

However, foodborne illness can result in permanent health problems or even death, especially for people at high risk, including babies, young children, pregnant women (and their fetuses), elderly people, sick people and others with weak immune systems.

So, we are talking about dead people and serious illness for thousands of others and since food poisoning can mimic other diseases like the flu, the numbers reported are too low.

Now, back to our moral dilemma. The bacteria from your chicken will kill some people often the elderly or the very young. On the other hand, you are participating in busines worth billion of dollars a year. (Tyson sold 26 billion dollars worth of food in 2005.) If your competitors do not act to fix the problem, they can sell chicken for less than you. You will lose market share and thousands of people might lose their jobs.

Now, you might say, “James, you have to draw the line here, we are talking about people’s lives.” I agree that lives are at stake, but I can’t help but point out that it doesn’t look like anybody is drawing a line.

Should we wait for industry to act? A study two years ago showed 80 percent of all chicken contaminated with bacteria. We’ve gone from 80 percent to 2/3 of all chicken sold. Isn’t that movement in the right direction? Don’t you know that incremental change is the responsible way to accomplish these kinds of goals? If you were to impose radical changes on the industry, everyone in American would have to pay a lot more for chicken. Don’t you want even the poorest in this country to have access to meat and the nutritional benefits it brings?

So, we come down to the usual questions. What are you willing to do as an employee of such a company? Where do you draw the line? What’s worth losing your job for? What’s the “right” thing to do?

Futher, as a society, what social costs are we willing to incur for low levels of bacteria in chicken: loss of jobs, increases in foreign competition and a greater price at the supermarket? What’s the social value of cheap chicken?

My conclusion is the following.

Selling chicken which you know to be contaminated with bacteria when you have the technology to eliminate some or all the bacteria is murder. I’m sorry about all the jobs. I’m sorry about the lost profits and danger of competition from foreigners but I just get upset about dead people, a personal weakness of mine, perhaps.

Since, it does not appear any chicken selling company is willing to make the first move to eliminate bacteria and endanger its bottom line, the government will have to mandate new standards.

Now, I realize that given time the free market will solve this problem. After all companies that sell chicken that kill will undoubtedly lose market share. Or will they? Reported levels of 80% didn’t stop people from continuing to buy chicken. On the other hand, this information does not appear to be common knowledge. It appears that the free market doesn’t function well when the consumers do not all have the same information. If death from chicken were certain instead of sporadic it would be easier for the public to make a good decision but food poisoning takes as long as a week to manifest itself. It’s hard to figure out what you ate over a seven day period and of course you might think it’s the flu. What do you think? Could this be an example of the free market yielding illogical or tragic results? Does the free market unfettered by government interference solve all problems?

James Pilant