May 21, 2007
Fear of Eating, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times
Yesterday I did something risky: I ate a salad.
These are anxious days at the lunch table. For all you know, there may be E. coli on your spinach, salmonella in your peanut butter and melamine in your pet¹s food and, because it was in the feed, in your chicken sandwich.
Who¹s responsible...? Some blame globalization; some blame food-producing corporations; some blame the Bush administration. But I blame Milton Friedman.
Now, those who blame globalization do have a point. ...[S]ince the Food and Drug Administration has limited funds..., it can inspect only a small percentage of imports. This leaves American consumers effectively dependent on the quality of foreign food-safety enforcement. And that¹s not a healthy place to be... [L]ast month the [FDA] detained shipments from China that included dried apples treated with carcinogenic chemicals and seafood ³coated with putrefying bacteria.² You can be sure that a lot of similarly unsafe and disgusting food ends up in American stomachs.
Those who blame corporations also have a point. In 2005, the F.D.A. suspected that peanut butter produced by ConAgra ... might be contaminated with salmonella. According to The New York Times, ³when agency inspectors went to the plant..., the company acknowledged it had destroyed some product but...²... refused to let the inspectors examine its records without a written authorization.
According to the company, the agency never followed through. This brings us to our third villain, the Bush administration.
Without question, America¹s food safety system has degenerated... [S]ince 2001 the F.D.A. has introduced no significant new food safety regulations...
This isn¹t simply a matter of caving in to industry pressure... The ... United Fresh Produce Association says that ... without strong mandatory federal regulations..., scrupulous growers and processors risk being undercut by competitors more willing to cut corners on food safety. ...
Why would the administration refuse to regulate an industry that actually wants to be regulated? Officials ... are also influenced by an ideology that says business should never be regulated, no matter what.
The economic case for having the government enforce rules on food safety seems overwhelming. Consumers have no way of knowing whether the food they eat is contaminated, and in this case what you don¹t know can hurt or even kill you. But there are some people who refuse to accept that case, because it¹s ideologically inconvenient.
That¹s why I blame ... Milton Friedman, who called for the abolition of both the food and the drug sides of the F.D.A. What would protect the public from dangerous or ineffective drugs? ³It¹s in the self-interest of pharmaceutical companies not to have these bad things,² he insisted... He would presumably have applied the same logic to food safety (as he did to airline safety): regardless of circumstances, you can always trust the private sector to police itself.
O.K., I¹m not saying that Mr. Friedman directly caused tainted spinach and poisonous peanut butter. But he did help to make our food less safe, by legitimizing what the historian Rick Perlstein calls ³E. coli conservatives²: ideologues who won¹t accept even the most compelling case for government regulation.
Earlier this month the administration named, you guessed it, a ³food safety czar.² But the food safety crisis isn¹t caused by the arrangement of the boxes on the organization chart. It¹s caused by the dominance within our government of a literally sickening ideology.
Coloribus gustibus non disputatum (mostly)