E. coli conservatives

By Rick Perlstein

First, they came for the spinach.

I remember the day last September. The supermarket had a new kind of salad dressing, one that looked like it would taste good with spinach. I went to the produce section to buy a bag. But they all had been recalled. Three people had died from E. coli contamination from eating spinach. I decided I could live without the spinach.

Next they came for the peanut butter, and I didn’t pay much attention. I don’t much like peanut butter.

Then they came for the tomatoes. Then the Taco Bell lettuce.

Then the mushrooms, then ham steaks, then summer sausage. I started worrying.

Then, they came for the pet food.

I remember the sinking feeling, hearing that dogs and cats had died eating contaminated food. Then the flash of guilt—had we poisoned our dogs? I remember hearing the name of the manufacturer, my wife searching the web frantically for a catalogue of its products, the stab of fear when we found the name of the food our own dogs eat. Then the wave of relief—it was only canned food; our dogs eat dry. I began investigating more. One of the things I learned was that the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t been able to confirm “with 100 percent certainty” that the offending agent didn’t go into human food. Then it neglected to reveal the name of the tainted product’s U.S. distributor.

It is time to get to the root of the problem. I blame the conservatism.

I’ve been studying the conservative turn in American politics pretty much fulltime since 1997. I never was a conservative. But I admired conservatives. The people then running the Democratic Party just did not seem to me strong people. They were “triangulators”—splitting every difference, selling out any principle, in the ever-illusive quest to divine the American people’s fickle beliefs at that particular moment. They did not lead. They followed—Chamberlains, not Churchills.

I wrote a book that came out in 2001 about the conservatives who took over the Republican Party in the early 1960s. Whatever my differences with them ideologically, I didn’t write a single negative word about the conservative movement for nearly seven years. Until then, I considered them honorable adversaries. They inspired me. They took risks for a cause. They were principled. They were endlessly determined.

I’ve come to different conclusions now. They were, yes, endlessly determined. It was over 35 years ago, in Conscience of a Conservative, when Barry Goldwater wrote these stirring words: “I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient for I mean to reduce its size.” Twenty years after that, President Reagan intoned at his first inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

But Barry Goldwater lost his 1964 presidential race in a landslide. Reagan was inaugurated, and we began seeing headlines like “Wide Spectrum of Regulations Set for Reagan Team’s Scalpel.” But actually, the Reagan team wasn’t able to deregulate all that much, or nearly as much as they wished; the political obstacles, in the 1980s, were just too great.

For these brief four years, however, between the Republican takeover of the Senate in 2002 under President Bush and the recent return of Congress to Democratic control, the scalpel has become a machete. We’ve been able to witness a natural experiment: What would have happened if Goldwater and Reagan had been able to get their way?

Surveying the results, what once looked to me like principle now looks to me now like mania. Conservatism has been killing Americans. The recent food safety crisis is only one case study.

Let’s start connecting the dots.

The Associated Press studied the records and found that between 2003 and 2006 the Food and Drug Administration conducted 47 percent fewer safety inspections. FDA field offices have 12 percent fewer employees. Safety tests for food produced in the United States have gone down by three quarters—have almost ground to a halt—in the previous year alone.

What does that mean, in practical terms? Consider the peanut butter.

Factories producing the foods most susceptible to contamination, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, are supposed to be inspected every year. (That’s cold comfort to those who ate this year’s bad batches of spinach, lettuce, cantaloupes and tomatoes.) Since the last known outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter was in Australia in the 1990s, that puts it in the “low-risk” category; peanut butter factories are inspected only every two to three years.

People started getting sick in February. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control traced the illnesses back to a single plant in Sylvester, Ga. The next day, the FDA arrived for a post hoc inspection (by then 425 people in 44 states had been sickened). Then they covered their own back: “What you saw with the spinach and certainly what you saw with the spinach and certainly what you saw with the peanut butter, is when we see those signals, we’re going to act to protect the public health,” a spokesman promised.

He was saying: The system worked. In a sense, he was right. This was the system working as it is presently designed. Barn door: closed. Cow: already long gone. That, basically, is as good as it gets in the modern FDA.

As Dr. Phil would say: How’s that working out for you?

Not so well, it turns out. It was months later before we learned the eminently preventable reason our peanut butter had been poisoned: a leaky roof and a faulty sprinkler provided the culture for the salmonella bug at the Georgia plant. How did we find that out? Not from the FDA inspection. We had to rely on the company’s own investigation. They had a public relations crisis on their hands. They want to return Peter Pan Peanut Butter to shelves in the middle of July. So they undertook their own belated, two-month investigation. The Georgia plant will open in August—with the new roof the FDA never noticed they needed in February.

Public relations has a lot to do with the way you’ve been learning about the Third Worlding of America’s food safety system. The Georgia source of the bad peanut butter was discovered in the middle of February. The very next day Dole recalled several thousand cartons of cantaloupe that their own “routine” inspections suggested might be carrying salmonella. Four days later, B.J.’s Wholesale Club recalled packaged fresh mushrooms: more routine inspections, this time coming up with E. coli. They always say the inspections are “routine.” But they also always manage to somehow come in clusters.

Connect the dots, and you suddenly notice a lot of these…coincidences. Last month the FDA abruptly announced new rules for fresh-cut produce. They claim it’s a huge step forward. “We’ve never before formally recommended that the industry adopt such regulations,” said a spokesman. But, oops: he’s hustling you. Meat inspections are mandatory. Produce inspections will remain voluntary.

George Bush’s Food and Drug Administration—and our other major food-inspection arm, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—are Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan’s noble words made flesh. But don’t let your family get too close to the flesh. They might get sick and die.

I’ll be writing a lot more about this on The Big Con. A lot more. I’ll leave you, for now, with this quote from a disgruntled FDA inspector on this “huge step forward”—voluntary inspections. “Let’s be honest,” he said. “The plant people are not going to slow down the lines for something they find wrong. How often do you hear of a highway patrolman giving himself a ticket for speeding?”

I’d love to provide a link for the quote but it’s too old. It’s from an Atlanta Journal Constitution article on May 26, 1991.

“I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient for I mean to reduce its size.”

“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

“How often do you hear of a highway patrolman giving himself a ticket for speeding?”

This con’s been in the works for some time now. Check back frequently. I’ll be filling out the story in all its rancid particulars.

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