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
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
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
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
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)