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It is not always clear what goes into a certain food. Something you think is peanut free was actually made with some elements of peanuts (e.g. peanut oil), or was processed in a place where peanuts are also processed.

Is the company morally liable for the customer dying from an anaphylatic shock from eating such a product?

Or, do Objectivists think companies should not be required to disclose this information and it is tough luck for the consumer if this happens?

asked Apr 04 '15 at 20:57

user890's gravatar image


Without getting to deep into the nitty-gritty, the Restatement (Third) of Torts, Section 7, says:

"One engaged in the business of selling or otherwise distributing food products who sells or distributes a food product that is defective . . . is subject to liability for harm to persons or property caused by the defect. Under § 2(a), a harm-causing ingredient of the food product constitutes a defect if a reasonable customer would not expect the food product to contain that ingredient."

That seems like a reasonable rule.

Rat poison in beer = liable. Peanuts in peanut butter = not liable.

(Apr 05 '15 at 07:10) anthony anthony's gravatar image

It should not be assumed that the peanut-sensitive minority would be defenseless in a system of free markets. That's actually an instance of the false-alternative fallacy. There is a lot that the peanut-sensitive minority could do -- entirely voluntarily and without initiating physical force against producers (or empowering the government to do so) -- to collect and disseminate factually accurate information and perhaps even to perform independent product testing. As Greg's answer succinctly points out, producers would have a financial incentive to cooperate if the cost is minimal and no one threatens to initiate physical force against them. But initiation of physical force (or the credible threat to do so) is a powerful disincentive and deterrent, since the mind cannot function rationally and productively under physical force.

(Apr 06 '15 at 22:50) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

While I agree with what the commenter above said, I don't really see how it's relevant. As Greg's answer also points out, "in a free society, nobody is permitted to engage in fraud or to be negligent."

As far as I know, no one is threatening to initiate physical force against food companies because they fail to put a warning label about peanut dust on their product. The warning labels are there voluntarily to protect the companies against a negligence lawsuit (retaliatory physical force).

But maybe I'm just not aware of some law which mandates these labels. Anyone know of such a law?

(Apr 16 '15 at 11:39) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), which amended the FD&C Act requires most foods to bear nutrition labeling and requires food labels that bear nutrient content claims and certain health messages to comply with specific requirements."government source

(Apr 16 '15 at 12:22) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Nutrition labelling laws are definitely improper. But this law looks more on point when it comes to allergen labelling: http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/Allergens/ucm106187.htm

Codified as https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/21/343 subsection (w).

Looking at it quickly, I'm still not sure where the initiation of force is.

(Apr 16 '15 at 12:34) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"Manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that food is not adulterated or misbranded as a result of the presence of undeclared allergens [i.e., peanuts, wheat, soy, and the others of 8 name by the FDA]. Therefore, the districts should pay particular attention to situations where these substances are added intentionally to food, but not declared on the label, or may be unintentionally introduced into a food product and consequently not declared on the label." FDA compliance manual, my emphasis

(Apr 16 '15 at 15:07) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg, you're right. Thanks.

(Apr 18 '15 at 21:33) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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In a free society, nobody would be compelled to disclose any particular information about a product they are selling. (But good luck trying to succeed in business if people can't tell whether they should buy what you're offering.)

At the same time, in a free society, nobody would be compelled to consume a product which fails to disclose the information they require. (So if you have an allergy and go around mindlessly eating whatever you find available, then your getting sick is on you.)

Finally, note that in a free society, nobody is permitted to engage in fraud or to be negligent. (If anyone lies about their product, or is negligent regarding it, then they would be morally and legally liable for the resulting harm.)

answered Apr 05 '15 at 00:54

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

edited Apr 05 '15 at 00:58

But is it negligence to process food in a place where peanuts are processed, knowing that some people are so allergic to peanuts that there is a significant chance that they would be harmed if they ate such food, and without disclosing that fact?

Under current law, probably. Is that law wrong, or is it proper, or is this a question of law which is outside the scope of Objectivism?

Personally while I think that products liability law goes too far, I think the answer of how and why it does is highly technical.

(Apr 05 '15 at 06:43) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Determining negligence seems awfully down-in-the-trenches of the law, but from my philosophical armchair it seems like that should not be deemed negligent. People with unusual food sensitivities are not endangered by products they don't consume, and they are perfectly capable of demanding/seeking products which affirmatively state the information required to know whether they are safe. Negligence would arise when a manufacturer knows (or should have known) about a factor consumers aren't in a position to avoid -- but it is easy to avoid products which don't state what you need to know.

(Apr 15 '15 at 23:59) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

What would be a factor which consumers aren't in a position to avoid? The argument that people should specifically ask could be made for anything. (If I'm allergic to penicillin, do I have to refuse to buy soda unless the package says "contains no penicillin"? What about "contains no rat poison"?)

I think there's a line to draw somewhere. Maybe "unusual" is part of it, but I'm not sure we can call a peanut allergy an unusual food sensitivity (I think at least that it's close to the borderline, to the point where I'm not comfortable saying that a court which ruled it wasn't was wrong.)

(Apr 16 '15 at 11:14) anthony anthony's gravatar image

If my particular dietary requirements aren't on the radar of some producer to advertise compliance with, then I simply won't consume what they are offering. It is common knowledge that food preparation can introduce trace amounts of one product's ingredients to another product. This naturally happens in home and commercial kitchens, and it naturally happens in processing plants, unless special (i.e., not free) measures are taken to prevent it. If I end up sick or religiously impure because I wrongly assumed such special measures were taken, then I was negligent -- not the producer.

(Apr 16 '15 at 12:59) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

All I meant by "aren't in a position to avoid" would be something like: (a) contamination of food with a poison or non-food allergen (if I order the taco salad and receive a dish that includes, say, arsenic or penicillin, then I acted reasonably and someone on the restaurant side of the equation is responsible). Or (b) contamination with a poison or food allergen outside it's package which could cause harm by mere contact (if I handle the package to see whether it's okay for me but the package itself hurts me, then again I acted reasonably and someone on the production side is responsible).

(Apr 16 '15 at 16:43) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Oh well. In a world where manufacturers didn't have a duty to tell people when there were unexpected (1) allergens in a product, I'm sure the free-market would come up with a seal of some sort which signified that the product was free from unexpected allergens unless specifically on the label (the group which sponsored the seal could have a list of all allergens which are covered by the seal). Listing out every type of food that's not in a product would be silly. So it doesn't really matter.

(1) If it's common knowledge, then it's not unexpected, and the manufacturer should win the case.

(Apr 18 '15 at 22:05) anthony anthony's gravatar image

The rat poisoin is really not a good analogy, since it is poisoinous to everyone, and it is not food to anyone. Peanuts (or other food allergins), on the other hand, are not dangerous to most people and are food to most people.

(May 05 '15 at 11:27) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

I tend to think that the restatement is on the right track when it says that liability hinges on whether a reasonble person would not expect the ingredient to be in the product. However, I think that every reasonble person must expect that a manufactured food product could contain trace amounts of any food item, even food items that are unrelated to the specific food product in question. This would mean that there would be no liability for any food item (food-allergin) contained in a product.

(May 05 '15 at 11:34) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

At a higher level, this issue is related to the quesiton of when an action that has a probability of causing harm becomes a rights violation. If only one person on earth is allergic to peanuts, then the probability of causing harm by including peanuts in your product is miniscule, and the act of doing so is not a rights violation. On the other hand, if 99% of the population is allegeric to peanuts, then clearly you are violating rights by including them in your product without warnings--at that point peanuts are not food anymore, but rather are poison.

(May 05 '15 at 11:40) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

The difficultly lies in-between these polar extremes. As with all such cases involving probability of harm, it is difficult to pin down a sharp transition point between probabilities of harm that are "not rights violating" and probabilities of harm that are "rights violating". However, difficulty with border line cases does not invalidite the theory, it only ensures job security for us lawyers. :)

(May 05 '15 at 11:45) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image
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Asked: Apr 04 '15 at 20:57

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Last updated: May 05 '15 at 11:46