More calls for food regulation

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The lead editorial in today’s New York Times begs for more regulation of the food supply.

At a minimum, Congress needs to provide the F.D.A. with more money and more inspectors to monitor the safety of fresh produce all the way from field to consumer. It should also abandon the fiction that voluntary guidelines to ensure safe food production can do the job, and insist instead on some kind of mandatory regulation.

It is also time to revive the long-languishing notion that all of the government’s disparate food regulation activities should be combined into a single, fully empowered agency. It is absurd that lettuce should be regulated more lightly than beefsteak.

This editorial echoes the same plea made a yesterday by Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation.

Last year, Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, both Democrats, introduced an important piece of food-safety legislation that tackles these problems. Their Safe Food Act would create a single food-safety agency with the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens, demand recalls and penalize companies that knowingly sell contaminated food.

It would eliminate petty bureaucratic rivalries and make a single administrator accountable for the safety of America’s food. And it would facilitate a swift, effective response not only to the sort of inadvertent outbreaks that have occurred this fall, but also to any deliberate bioterrorism aimed at our food supply.

The Safe Food Act deserves strong bipartisan backing. Aside from industry lobbyists and their Congressional allies, there is little public support for the right to sell contaminated food. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you still have to eat.

It all sounds noble, but it also sounds exactly like the rationale for establishing the Transportation Safety Authority after 9-11. I don’t know about you, but somehow I don’t feel a whole lot safer knowing that the TSA is making sure no one takes a nail file on a plane. Nor do I feel especially great knowing that an entire new huge, ungainly, unmanageable bureaucracy has been created just so that our leaders in the government would appear to be doing something in response to the 9-11 attacks.

In my opinion, we are headed in the same direction with the formation of some sort of uber food safety agency. I would be more in favor of it if the budgets of both the FDA and the USDA (the two groups now charged with food safety monitoring) would be cut by the amount it takes to fund the new agency, but that will never happen. No, I fear it will be just another TSA kind of boondoggle that won’t make the food any safer but will increase the price and hassle quotient of everyone.

But, I suspect it will come to pass. Why? Because politicians want to be seen to be doing something to solve problems, especially if these problems garner a lot of press coverage as the food contaminations have done.

And if it does come to pass, it will be a typical triumph of government operation. First they create the problem, then they ‘fix’ the problem, then they take credit for having done something.

Buried in the Schlosser piece is this telling paragraph:

Over the past 40 years, the industrialization and centralization of our food system has greatly magnified the potential for big outbreaks. Today only 13 slaughterhouses process the majority of the beef consumed by 300 million Americans. [My italics]

Why do only 13 slaughterhouses process the majority of beef in America? Because of onerous government regulation of slaughterhouses making it impossible for smaller facilities to afford the expense required to comply. Why are cattle shipped all over the place to be slaughtered? Because they have to go to one of these 13 facilities. Why do we have E. coli O157:H7 to begin with? Because the cattle are bunched together in huge feedlots near the 13 slaughterhouses and fed corn, which acidifies their GI tracts allowing the growth of this virulent bacterium. Why don’t more people get sick from the meat, which is surely contaminated? Because the meat is irradiated to kill the bacteria.

Will we still have outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7with a newer improved agency on the scene? Of course. E. coli O157:H7 clings tenaciously to plant foods making it difficult to remove with standard washing. I suspect a new agency would militate for the irradiation of all plant food, braying that it’s necessary for our national safety.

What’s wrong with allowing smaller slaughterhouses deal with grass-fed beef? Small ranchers won’t have such a problem selling their cattle and the production of E. coli O157:H7 will be minimized. And the chance of contamination will be greatly minimized. Right now, if you eat a hamburger, you’re eating the parts of one 1/13th of the cows slaughtered in America that day. If you eat a hamburger from a small facility, you may be eating parts of one of the cows slaughtered in your neighborhood. If it’s all the same, I’ll take my chances with the latter.

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6 thoughts on “More calls for food regulation

  1. The cause of the problem is centralization, therefore the solution is MORE centralization. QED

    To make a bureaucracy “effective” it will be necessary to further centralize. How does this make us more secure from bioterroism? It doesn’t. Thousands of small producers scattered across the entire continent would be impossible to compromise to any degree that would threaten the health of more than a few. With 13 plants supplying 300 million people, 20+ million could be hit from just one plant. Simple contamination would be easily isolated if all of the affected individuals could be traced back to one local source. Let me guess each of the 13 plants are independantly owned thus creating “competition”, right?

    Taco Bell, “in an abundance of caution” eliminated green onions from all 5,000+ restaurants and changed it’s produce supplier even though the onions were cleared! This “logic” is insane. It also further favors consolidation. It takes big bucks to lose an account like that and makes the supplier vulnerable to takeover, at pennies on the dollar.

    Hi George–

    Great comment! You’ve hit the nail precisely on the head.

    Thanks for writing.

    MRE

  2. Am I the only one who feels like the stories of these outbreaks has been an attempt to lead us down the path to more food regulation? The “answer” is always that we need more regulation and oversight to keep us “safe”. There are a few voices of sanity (Michael Pollan comes to mind), but we are being manipulated by the majority of public voices into accepting regulation and irradiation for our own good.

    I actually do distrust the food supply for many reasons, but my answer is to buy mostly locally grown meat, eggs, milk and vegetables.

    Hi Kristn–

    I think your choice is the optimal one.  If everyone bought local it would be easy to track down the source of any contamination (which would affect only a relatively few people) instead of this Taco Bell nightmare that’s going on right now.  Last I read, it turns out it wasn’t the green onions.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  3. Okay, so this is where I get really geeky. Does everyone remember the Borg on Star Trek TNG? The major reason that they were indestructible was their redundant systems coupled with instant communication. If one part of their ship was hit, other parts took over immediately. For those who don’t know, each ship consisted of lots of individual “cells” or teams, that each ran their own engineering,weapons systems,life support,repair, etc. If one or more cells were destroyed, the adjoining cells took over instantly and started reconstruction. This has obvious implications for Homeland Security.

    Michael Pollan has it right when it comes to buying local. It comes to much the same thing as having redundant systems.

    I don’t mind federal regulations. What I do mind is centralization–it’s cumbersome, expensive, slow. In this age of the internet, we should be able to allow each state to develop their own methods to address any and all federal regulations, since regulations would be known and understandable instantly by internet–for the public,the legislatures,the lawyers(!)–any and all who need to know. The idea of transparency, that corporations and politicians would find it more difficult to take advantage of the public,is something we as citizens really need to develop using the internet. Anybody who’s been following the Congressional scandals know how much harder it is nowadays to hide from the public.

    Get rid of the FDA and USDA as the actual regulators and let each state legislature come up with substitutions most convenient and servicible to the citizens of each state. This is what we already do with school systems since before No Child Left Behind. It should be very obvious that the needs of a state like Montana are very different from the much more populous California. And each state should have at least one of its own USDA slaughterhouses, financed according to the convenience of that state, with a mixture of private,state, and federal funds determined by that state. For instance, Nevada might want to put several slaughterhouses by the CA-NV border to take advantage of the bigger CA population.

    “States’ Rights” is usually code for something very unfortunate. How much better it would be if it stood for immediate response and flexibility because we handed operations over to each state, the way it should always have been.

    Hi LC–

    In my opinion your suggestions would be a step in the right direction.  I’m not sure that state bureaucracies wouldn’t be too large to keep from screwing things up.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  4. The beauty of having the states take care of things is that each state can come up with its own unique solutions. And states learn from each other.I believe that the state of Nevada has a very efficient health dept with an associated restaurant board that takes care of problems very quickly. It would not do for Las Vegas and Reno to develop bad restaurant reputations. That system could be used to develop a system of local USDA inspection. Governors of adjoining states could take it upon themselves to fast forward putting such things in front of their legislatures.

    The thing is, when we say all bureaucracies are inefficient from the start, it’s too simplistic–we stop ourselves from investigating those systems in other states–or countries for that matter, that we could duplicate.

    Agreed!

    MRE

  5. The problem with bureaucracies at the moment (I work for a fairly large one, located on the Mall in Washington DC) is not the lack of efficiency. It is the priorities of the executive branch. Currently, at my agency, which has tangential ties to the food supply, and nothing to do with food safety, the enforcement focus is on compliance assistance rather than enforcement. What does this mean?

    Well, in the old days of enforcement focus, a large portion of my agency’s workers went out, looked at stuff, and levied fines when they found people in violation. If you make the fines big enough, you provide what economists would call an incentive for folks to come in line.

    Under the current regime, the compliance assistance focus, it works more like this. You are in violation of a federal statute. So, you come forward to the government, and the staff works as a consultant to help bring you into line with what you’re mandated to be in line with. It’s a kindler, gentler form of enforcement, without any kind of incentive, other than you get a lot of free consulting on how to do what you’re supposed to be doing in the first place.

    I do not work at Ag or HHS, but they have experienced the same shift in focus from enforcement to assistance. Assistance is a nice story but it cannot really provide the incentive to fly right without a strong enforcement arm.

    The thing that Eric Schlosser is talking about would be a good step in the right direction, however, it would fall under the Executive Branch and therefore be focused, incorrectly, on assistance.

    On the “Let the states look at it.” The states were producing wide variety in quality in education before NCLB. And by wide, I mean huge. Now, I have lived in places with fairly agressive state governments (New York, California) and with fairly sad state governments (from a social services standpoint, Texas and Missouri). The gap is enormous and hard to see until you move. If I were a Missourian again, I would definitely NOT want my state involved and would definitely prefer the Feds to handle it (from an efficacy perspective). If I were back to being a Californian, vice versa.

    Centralization isn’t the solution without a shift in the perspective of what constitutes an effective federal government. The current perspective is clearly not functional.

    Hi Max–

    Thanks for the long comment.

    I don’t know that I necessarily agree that assistance is less worthy than enforcement. It’s the old debate about what’s better: the carrot or the stick. Since the government exists to ‘serve’ us, it would seem to me that we would be better served by being helped than by being fined. In both cases the harmful action, whether it be food contamination, improper slaughtering techniques, whatever, has already taken place. It can’t be undone, so the best strategy is to prevent its happening in the future. How can we best do this? By levying a fine or by offering assistance to meet compliance. In my opinion the latter strategy works the best. Probably the best strategy is assistance first, then a fine if there is no change.

    I can assure you from first hand experience that not all agencies of the federal government have adopted the assistance-mode.  The FTC is all about enforcement.  They don’t have an assistance bone in their corpus.

    I’m sure that the federal government can come up with better ways to do things than can some states, but I still believe that the best way to govern is at the state level with federal oversight.  If I live in Missouri and don’t like the way things are going I can relatively easily move to Arkansas or Nevada or wherever it is that I think things are better.  If I don’t like what’s happening at the federal level, what are my choices?  Immigration, which is a damn site less easily accomplished than moving to another state.  And state rules and regs are much more easily changed than federal rules and regs.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  6. Imagine the public outcry if politicians had not come up with some kind of new regulation in reaction to this problem.

    This is the problem with democracy (and politics in general); the incentive to take popular but ineffective initiatives is much greater than the incentive to take unpopular, but effective ones. Appearance is all that matters.

    Great post!

    Hi Francis–

    Great comment!

    Best–

    MRE