Concentrated interests > science

This Adam Davidson piece on “Money, Power, and Deer Urine” (really!) is so good.  I’ve been meaning to do a post on it for a long time, but since I plan on discussing it some in my Public Policy class today, I’m putting off the post no longer.  As I explain to my class, intense, concentrated interests almost always win over more diffuse interests (e.g., beef producers have a lot of profit motive at stake in avoiding better inspections whereas not too many people find hard for a small percentage reduction in likelihood of food-borne illness spread across all meat eaters).  And, the power of those concentrated interests certainly has the power to outweigh what the science tells us (e.g., a more robust meat inspection system would reduce human suffering and occasional death).

Anyway, it’s pretty fascinating how this all plays out with the issue of prion diseases (i.e., similar to Mad Cow), hunting, and deer urine:

Walk into Walmart or Cabela’s and go to the back, near the rifles, and you’ll find a wall display of deer urine. It comes in small squirt bottles that hunters spray on the ground to hide their scent…

Lapp, along with the deer-farming industry as a whole, is facing a crisis in the form of chronic wasting disease, a plague that attacks white-tailed deer, elk, moose, reindeer, and other members of the cervid family. C.W.D., like mad-cow disease, is caused by a misshapen protein that forces healthy proteins to fold in on themselves, becoming defective. There is no cure—a sick animal wastes away and eventually dies—and the infectious proteins, called prions, can linger in dirt or on plants for years. (There have been no known cases of humans catching C.W.D., but a recent study in Canada found that some macaque monkeys who ate infected meat became ill.) The prions are found in huge quantities in an infected deer’s brain, lymph nodes, saliva, and meat; in smaller amounts in its blood and feces; and in nearly undetectable amounts in its urine…

But Krysten Schuler, a Cornell ecologist on the task force, told me that the most controversial part of the plan has been its complete ban on deer urine.

In a report released by the task force, the case against deer urine appears to be grounded in science. When I contacted some of the authors of the scientific papers cited, however, I learned that a deer would have to imbibe gallons of urine from a dying animal to fall ill; a few ounces sprayed around a hunting site doesn’t pose a risk…

The state will still allow hunters to bring butchered meat back from infected areas, even though hunters often field-dress the animals, exposing the meat—and their clothes, trucks, and other gear—to brain matter, blood, saliva, and feces. One gram of brain matter contains the same number of prions as thirty thousand gallons of urine. Why is the lowest-risk bodily fluid banned, while meat, which may pose an equal or higher risk, is permitted?

The reason is simple. The risk-mitigation plan, like all regulation, isn’t based purely on science; it also takes into account politics and economics. [emphasis mine] The report acknowledges that the New York deer-hunting industry, which is dominated by firearm hunters, brings in more than one and a half billion dollars a year, and is supported by retailers and a passionate population of hunters. The deer-urine industry, on the other hand, is most vocally supported by bow hunters, who are comparatively few, and is predominantly represented by people like Lapp, small farmers with few resources.

The plan’s disparate treatment of urine and meat is an example of what economists call regulatory capture: the process by which regulators, who are supposed to pursue solely the public interest, instead become solicitous of the very industries they regulate.

So, there’s some science going on here, but like so much of what we get as the end-result policy, it doesn’t actually make a lot of sense just looking at good policy, but does look sense when one looks at who are the powerful interests and their economic influence.  Unfortunate, but the definite reality of public policy.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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