Risky regulation in the dairy industry

An article on Stuff reports that the government is choosing to do nothing about a potentially dangerous protein found in most milk produced by NZ cows. Apparently it would be very damaging to the NZ dairy industry to act on the rather uncertain scientific evidence, so the Food Safety Authority is downplaying the situation. The nutrition expert who wrote a report for the NZFSA says, “it does raise the whole question about how well… the question of uncertainty is dealt with by the authority” and partially attributes the problem to “government risk aversion com[ing] into play.” Risk aversion is well known to economists and is exhibited by most people; however, the government here is not exhibiting risk aversion at all.

What the government is doing is avoiding certain costs in favour of maintaining the dairy industry’s profits with a huge cloud of uncertainty sitting over them. Doing something about the protein now would be costly but would avoid any future risk of adverse scientific results hurting our exports. Doing nothing exposes the industry to the entire risk of such results. Why would the government act in such an apparently risk-seeking fashion? The answer comes from the field of behavioural economics and, in particular, prospect theory.

This theory was proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky to explain two observations pertinent to the NZFSA’s actions: loss aversion and risk seeking behaviour for losses. Loss aversion describes how people feel the pain of a loss far more keenly than the happiness of a gain of equal size. Tversky and Kahneman also found that, while people are risk averse for gains, they are risk seeking for losses. They will be willing to take huge risks in an attempt to avoid making any sort of loss. Taking these factors in to account perfectly explains the NZFSA’s behaviour: they are more than willing to take on the risk of future damage to NZ’s dairy industry in order to avoid the guaranteed losses of taking action now. Whether this is in the best interests of the country or the dairy is quite another matter as the comments in the article make clear.