What happened to food safety in the U.S.?
Paul Krugman wrote a compelling historical analysis of the deterioration of food safety in the U.S. in today's New York Times. Krugman pointed out that at the turn of the 19th century, US food safety had fallen to such a level that one could hear a ditty like this: Mary had a little lamb/ And when she saw it sicken/She shipped it off to the packing house/ And now it's labeled "chicken". What is that axiom about history repeating itself?
In response to an unacceptable state of affairs, strict food safety, sanitation and inspection laws were enacted that gave the country a safe food supply for a century: sadly, much of that progress has been lost in the last two decades, with poisoned fish, tomatos, spinach and sundry other items causing illness. Besides injuring our health, this loss of care has also damaged our export and financial health, as people of other nationalities stage immense riots to protest American beef imports bearing the risk of "mad cow" disease.
How did we get here? Krugman points to the ideological effort to "shrink the federal government to the size of a bathtub and then drown it". As a result of these efforts to eliminate taxing and regulatory authority, agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have become inadequately funded and staffed, and political appointees have sought to enfeeble their agencies, rather than attempting to make them effective. Only the sheer weight of food recalls in 2006 and 2007 caused President Bush's head of the FDA to acknowledge the need for additional resources. The appointee intended to head the CPSC--a shill for manufacturer's lobbyists and former lobbyist himself--had to resign his position after it was learned that he accepted a six-figure payment from the very special interests he was expected to supervise.
As the food supply of the American people has progressively moved overseas, governing food safety has become more complicated and expensive, yet the FDA remains smaller than it was in 1994--the year Republicans achieved control of the reins of government and initiated their "starve the beast" philosophy. Krugman points out that there is irony even in the recent South Korean protest against American beef: when "mad cow" first hit our shores, the Department of Agriculture was headed by a Bush appointee and former food industry lobbyist, Ann Venneman. She consistently refused to address the growing problem--even refusing to allow a Kansas farmer to test his own cattle to secure overseas sales (for fear that consumers would require similar steps by other beef producers). The net effect of these efforts to stymie government oversight has been further damage to the very industries that successfully lobbied to avoid government regulation.