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.
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.