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Waiting for the Invisible Hand: Market Power and Endogenous Information in the Modern Market for Food

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  • Trenton Smith

    ()

  • Hayley Chouinard
  • Philip Wandschneider

    (School of Economic Sciences, Washington State University)

Abstract

In many ways, the modern market for food exemplifies the economist’s conception of perfect competition, with many buyers, many sellers, and a robust and dynamic marketplace. But over the course of the last century, the U.S. has witnessed a dramatic shift away from traditional diets and toward a diet comprised primarily of processed brand-name foods with deleterious long-term health effects. This, in turn, has generated increasingly urgent calls for policy interventions aimed at improving the quality of the American diet. In this paper, we ask whether the current state of affairs represents a market failure, and—if so—what might be done about it. We review evidence that most of the nutritional deficiencies associated with today’s processed foods were unknown to nutrition science at the time these products were introduced, promoted, and adopted by American consumers. Today more is known about the nutritional implications of various processing technologies, but a number of forces—including consumer habits, costly information, and the market power associated with both existing brands and scale economies—are working in concert to maintain the status quo. We argue that while the current brand-based industrial food system (adopted and maintained historically as a means of preventing competition from small producers) has its advantages, the time may have come to consider expanding the system of quality grading employed in commodity markets into the retail market for food.

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File URL: http://faculty.ses.wsu.edu/WorkingPapers/TSmith/invisible021809.pdf
File Function: First version, 2009
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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by School of Economic Sciences, Washington State University in its series Working Papers with number 2009-07.

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Length: 40 pages
Date of creation: Feb 2009
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:wsu:wpaper:wandschneider-1

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Keywords: credence goods; history; food policy; certification;

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  1. Smith Trenton G. & Stoddard Christiana & Barnes Michael G, 2009. "Why the Poor Get Fat: Weight Gain and Economic Insecurity," Forum for Health Economics & Policy, De Gruyter, vol. 12(2), pages 1-31, June.
  2. Nelson, Phillip, 1970. "Information and Consumer Behavior," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 78(2), pages 311-29, March-Apr.
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  4. Darby, Michael R & Karni, Edi, 1973. "Free Competition and the Optimal Amount of Fraud," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 16(1), pages 67-88, April.
  5. Reardon, Thomas & Codron, Jean-Marie & Busch, Lawrence & Bingen, R. James & Harris, Craig, 1999. "Global Change In Agrifood Grades And Standards: Agribusiness Strategic Responses In Developing Countries," International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, International Food and Agribusiness Management Association (IAMA), vol. 2(03/04).
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  7. John M. Crespi & St)phan Marette, 2001. "How Should Food Safety Certification be Financed?," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 83(4), pages 852-861.
  8. Milgrom, Paul & Roberts, John, 1986. "Price and Advertising Signals of Product Quality," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 94(4), pages 796-821, August.
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  11. Smith, Trenton G, 2002. "The McDonald's Equilibrium: Advertising, Empty Calories, and the Endogenous Determination of Dietary Preferences," University of California at Santa Barbara, Economics Working Paper Series qt0hx9x4jr, Department of Economics, UC Santa Barbara.
  12. Alston, Julian M. & Sumner, Daniel A. & Vosti, Stephen A., 2008. "Farm subsidies and obesity in the United States: National evidence and international comparisons," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 33(6), pages 470-479, December.
  13. Smith, Trenton G. & Tasnadi, Attila, 2005. "A Theory of Natural Addiction," 2005 Annual meeting, July 24-27, Providence, RI 19195, American Agricultural Economics Association (New Name 2008: Agricultural and Applied Economics Association).
  14. Schmalensee, Richard, 1982. "Product Differentiation Advantages of Pioneering Brands," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 72(3), pages 349-65, June.
  15. Shapiro, Jesse & Glaeser, Edward & Cutler, David, 2003. "Why Have Americans Become More Obese," Scholarly Articles 2640583, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  16. William Masters & Diakalia Sanogo, 2002. "Welfare gains from quality certification of infant foods: Results from a market experiment in mali," Framed Field Experiments 00191, The Field Experiments Website.
  17. Unnevehr, Laurian J. & Jagmanaite, Evelina, 2008. "Getting rid of trans fats in the US diet: Policies, incentives and progress," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 33(6), pages 497-503, December.
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