Rotting Regulatory Standards
Since the inception of progressive government in the early 20th century, one by one, ancient scourges of mankind have fallen to enlightened public action: dangerous workplaces, dread diseases, and especially, after the formation of the Food and Drug Administration, food-borne illnesses. Now, shockingly, unexpectedly, a century's progress is being reversed. Thanks to the E. coli conservatives—ideologues who won't accept even the most compelling case for government regulation—people are getting sick and dying in record numbers. These ideologues believe regulations simply are not needed—because private companies can be trusted to regulate themselves.
Disdain for Government > Rotting Regulations
Conservatism designed to “shrink” government has reduced government’s ability to keep people safe. Since the days of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, American consumers have relied on government to protect the public health and to guard people from dangerous, unsanitary work environments. But conservatives have shrunk those protections, and people have suffered.
Operating funds for the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition dropped from $48 million in 2003 to an estimated $25 million for the following year.
Cutbacks in staff and budgets have reduced the number of food-safety inspections conducted by the FDA to about 3,400 a year—from 35,000 in the 1970s.
The number of inspectors at the Agriculture Department has declined to 7,500 from 9,000. According to an FDA budget official, the agency’s food division operated under a shortfall of $135 million in 2006, equivalent to a 24 percent budget cut.
Ends Justify the Means > Rotting Regulations
Conservatives hate progressive government that works—because it interferes with their abstract ideological end of discrediting government. When people feel like government can't protect them, they'll be more receptive to the message that government doesn't work. That's exactly what's been happening in our food safety crisis.
Between 2003 and 2006, the FDA 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. From 2003 to 2004 the number of full-time inspectors fell from about 2,200 to 1,962.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission's staff and budget have been cut by over half since the agency's founding in 1974—even as exports from companies with lax safety standards have exploded.
Factories producing the foods most susceptible to contamination, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, are supposed to be inspected every year. Since the last known outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter was in Australia in the 1990s, it is in the "low-risk" category, and peanut butter factories are inspected only every two to three years.
Cutting back on inspection and regulation may be bad for health, but it’s good for business. The anti-regulatory ideology reflects an investment by business in government policies that allow them to get away with things.
Since 2000, the meat processing and products and the crop production and basic processing industries gave 83 percent of its money to the Republican Party, over $35 million.
Miscast Morality > Rotting Regulations
Remember the hand-wringing question of the conservative Starr Report: “What will we tell the children?” The worry about the children, though, recedes when the question is health and safety. While conservatives are quick to rush into your hospital room and tell you who can pull the plug, they are not quite so fast to keep you out of the emergency room to start with. People might feel safe knowing that everyone can own a gun and that homosexuals are not allowed to get married, but it certainly does not make Americans any safer to leave their food uninspected and infested with diseases they cannot see.
In the fall of 2006, an outbreak of E. coli bacteria sickened more than 200 people in 26 states, and killed three of them. At least 183 people in 21 states got salmonella poisoning from contaminated tomatoes served at restaurants. More than 160 people in New York, New Jersey, and other states were sickened with E. coli. after eating at Taco Bell restaurants. These outbreaks are directly attributable to shrinking government.
After people started getting sick in February 2007, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control traced the illnesses back to a single plant in Sylvester, Georgia. 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 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. Horse: already long gone. That, basically, is as good as it gets in the modern FDA.
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 wanted to return their output of Peter Pan Peanut Butter to shelves in the middle of July. So they undertook their own belated, two-month investigation. The Georgia plant would open in August—with the new roof the FDA never noticed they needed in February.
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.
How Conservatism Caused This Failure...
Let regulatory and inspection standards rot because your official ideology is that you don't even respect government in the first place. read more »
The conservative answer on regulation—let corporations voluntarily police themselves—has been shown to be as corrosive than in the food safety scandals. read more »
While conservatives are quick to rush into your hospital room and tell you who can pull the plug, they are not quite so fast to keep you out of the emergency room to start with. read more »
Want to know who gets a say in how food safety measures get written? Follow the money. read more »
Want to know who gets a say in how food safety measures get written? Follow the money. read more