February 5, 2009 The Pump Handle 4Comment

Revere points out that the peanut industry (and the food industry as a whole) is learning that poor regulation is bad for business. You might run your business according to the highest standards, that’s not enough. If one of your competitors cuts too many corners and people die as a result, the entire industry will suffer, regardless of how exemplary individual companies might be.

Back in 2007, when a rash of toy recalls spooked shoppers, the toy industry actually asked the federal government to require lead testing for all toys sold in the U.S. In 2008, Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation that included this requirement, and also increased the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s budget from $80 million to $136 million for the next fiscal year.

Fixing the food safety system to prevent salmonella and other diseases is even more challenging than keeping lead out of our children’s toys, and FDA will need far more than an additional $56 million to be up to the challenge. With so many businesses suffering in the wake of food recalls, maybe the food industry could at least get behind allocating more money to food facility inspections and increasing fines to a level that might actually get businesses’ attention.

I’ve heard some people say recently that salmonella-tainted peanut products are much less problematic than other pressing issues, like the economic meltdown. I have two responses to this. First of all, eight deaths and 500+ illnesses might not seem like a lot, but they were preventable deaths. Our country’s food system, while undeniably flawed, already ensures that the majority of our food products are safe the majority of the time. It’s only right that we continue to improve on it as new conditions arise and we discover flaws.

Also, our confidence in our food supply is linked to our country’s economic conditions and our overall wellbeing. A single recall can drive multiple companies out of business. Too many recalls will lead to parents and caregivers worrying constantly that the food they feed their children and elderly family members might sicken or even kill them. That won’t be good for business or for our morale.

Let’s hope that the mounting toll of foodborne-illness deaths and recalls will be enough to spur improvements in a food safety system. In such a wealthy country, we ought to be able to trust our food supply.

4 thoughts on “Tainted Food’s Toll is Widespread

  1. “…poor regulation is bad for business. You might run your business according to the highest standards, that’s not enough. If one of your competitors cuts too many corners …”

    um…if there are more regulations, those unscrupulous competitors will still cut corners. Witness the numerous unscrupulous operators cheating worker safety by ignoring the (arguably minimal) OSHA reguations. “Outlawing guns will mean only outlaws have guns.” (Oh, and if I’m running my business according to regulation, I’m probably not running it according to the highest standards.)

    “…get behind allocating more money to food facility inspections …”
    Don’t we already have a USDA inspector stationed at every meat packing plant? And yet we still get meat recalls. (Vegetarian ain’t the answer either – this all started over a bean.)

    “…increasing fines to a level that might actually get businesses’ attention.”
    I’d like to think that would work. EPA has some whopper fines. $32,500/day for every day of violation – you’d think that would get some attention. Well, maybe it does.

    “A single recall can drive multiple companies out of business.”
    Yep. So maybe the one that started this thing should be the one to pay the price (out of business). Although the consumer will still demand low costs, which will drive the producers to cut corners.

    Hey – there’s an idea. Get the consumers to demand quality goods, and be willing to pay for it. THAT might get the good, honest business operators’ attention and drive the unscrupulous people out of town. Kind of like alternative energy – someone has to be willing to pay the higher price for a hybrid or fuel cell car before anyone will sell it – likewise, we have to be willing to pay more for quality assurance before anyone will provide it.

  2. I wonder if all the families of the people who’ve died from this outbreak share your faith in the market to solve this problem?

  3. Do you think those families have faith in the government to solve it? The government hasn’t been (and won’t be) able to solve all the other problems that are killing our families.

    I don’t think the market will solve this problem tomorrow, but I also have ZERO faith in large bureaucracies (whether they are Democratic or Republican) to move swiftly and effectively to deal with ANY issue. There are too many people with their finger in the pie, too many people pushing their own personal/political agendas, etc.

    Don’t get me wrong – I agree that 8 deaths and 500+ illnesses is a serious issue. So is 16 workplace fatalities EVERY DAY and uncounted workplace illnesses. Mostly from issues that are highly regulated (falling from heights, machine guarding, trench cave-ins). We already have food safety standards and regulations to prevent this sort of thing – so more regulations won’t fix it.

    As I re-read the original post, I see that the opening line set the tone for me (i.e. regulatory focus), and maybe that wasn’t the intended tone. Yes, more inspections and bigger fines might help. Yes, we definiitely need some sort of confidence in the safety of our food supply. And yes, we certainly need to focus on individuals/families, and remember they are not just numbers. Which, I think, is what drives each of us to get up everyday and keep up the fight.

  4. Faith in the government certainly varies, but it’s also hard to have faith in the market. A perfectly competitive market requires perfect information, but it’s extremely hard to trace a food item through a web of suppliers, as we saw with the tomato/jalape~no issue last year. And how many of us know whether a pack of peanut-butter crackers we buy from a vending machine contains peanut paste from The Peanut Corporation of America?

    I know there are many ways in which our food-safety agencies and OSHA have not lived up to expectations, but we should remember how much they have improved things. CDC’s list of Top Ten Public Health Achievements of the 20th Century includes both Workplace Safety and Safer and Healthier Foods. We have far fewer deaths today from workplace injuries and foodborne illnesses than we did at the start of the 20th century. That’s not to say we don’t still have a long way to go, but I see enough progress from the regulatory system to think that it’s worth trying to improve, rather than scrapping the whole thing and hoping the market will work well enough on its own.

    You’re right to worry about the speed of government action and the influence of people pushing their own agendas, but I see enough past success stories to think we have a shot.

    When government succeeds in correcting — or at least alleviating — a problem, it’s often because public sentiment is particularly strong, and because there are enough people working within the government who are committed to getting problems solved. It ought to be possible to align these factors once again for food safety.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.