Monday, November 29, 2010

Follow the White Rabbit ... to Food Safety

Food safety reform may take a big step forward when the Senate votes on the F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization bill this week, write Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser in an NYTimes op-ed. The changes are long overdue, granting wider-ranging powers and responsibilities to an invigorated F.D.A.
"The bill would, for the first time, give the F.D.A., which oversees 80 percent of the nation’s food, the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens and to recall contaminated food. The agency would finally have the resources and authority to prevent food safety problems, rather than respond only after people have become ill. The bill would also require more frequent inspections of large-scale, high-risk food-production plants."
Some factions in this country are going to decry the bill as another instance of expanding government, trying to take over our lives. The article notes a few of these critics, including Glenn Beck, some in the Tea Party movement, and Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma).

But when it comes to consumer safety, that's an unfair assessment. Picture the alternative: big corporations running wild, accountable to no one, and given a free pass by vociferous defenders at the highest levels of government. These companies allow poisons and pathogens into our food supply, sometimes through negligence, but other times with intentional disregard for safety -- all in the name of making a quick buck.

Wait ... that's China. Do we really want a Chinese food system? Or do we want a system, where the FDA inspects facilities regularly, stops corporate malfeasance, and protects the American consumer? Not all regulation is harmful, and right now, there is a need to modernize our food safety laws and the agency responsible for implementing them. The large-scale salmonella outbreaks that sickened hundreds of people last year, along with other major food recalls provide ample evidence.

By the way, when fear-mongering ideologues throw around the assertion that the U.S. is "turning into Red China" because we are expanding regulations and consumer protections, they're actually getting it wrong. Today in China, while the government has a heavy hand in managing political life, the story isn't the same in the economic sphere. In many cases, the average consumer lies practically naked, vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous companies who poison the rivers and air, and sell shoddy or dangerous products.

There is little recourse against such abuse, as the regulatory environment is weak, often still in a nascent stage. Many laws are vague; codes, standards, and regulatory procedures are still being developed. Even where laws exist, local courts and governments are often unable or unwilling to enforce them (or in cahoots with the company in the first place!) So you want no-holds-barred capitalism? Well, it's practically the Wild East over there. (Though the situation is improving). So it's somewhat counterintuitive, but if you want to gut government regulatory agencies and give free reign to corporations ... well, you're becoming more like China, not less. Yes, this is called irony.

Melamine with your tea, sir? (UConn)

Teddy Roosevelt battled similar critiques at the beginning of the 21st century, but prevailed to bring about some of the world's earliest food regulations, which helped bring a measure of safety to our food system. We shouldn't let ideologues, or those speaking only with their pocket books, stymie progress on an important bill that will protect public health and maintain the safety of our food supply.

Luckily, 80% of the public supports strengthening the FDA, and the bill passed the House with bipartisan support. So we'll see how the Senate acts in the days ahead.

P.S. One more interesting thing from the article: "The law would also help to protect Americans from unsafe food produced overseas: for the first time, imported foods would be subject to the same standards as those made in the United States." Maybe that means less melamine-laced candy in our stores. (Guess where this was made ... )

Photo credit: The Shanghaiist

UPDATE (11/31/2010): Food Safety Bill passes in the Senate and can be signed into law. Woohoo!

UPDATE (12/1/2010): Uh oh ... a technical problem in the Senate version of the bill might render it unconstitutional (there's a section that details revenue-raising measure ... but that kind of legislation must originate in the House, not the Senate). Details here. Really bad mistake -- Senators are uncertain how it happened and are scrambling to find a fix.


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