Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Government Small Enough To Drown In A Bathtub

Will also let us die of tainted spinach or of peanut butter with salmonella in it or possibly even of a terrorist strike through the food chain. Not to mention Mad Cow Disease. Did I mention Mad Cow Disease? Hmmm. Did I eat beef recently?

No, as I'm a plant-devouring goddess. But the concerns about the safety of food are real and important:

The federal agency that's been front and center in warning the public about tainted spinach and contaminated peanut butter is conducting just half the food safety inspections it did three years ago.

This photo provided by the Food and Drug Administration shows consumer safety officers Dean Cook, and Matthew M. Henciak, right, members of FDA's Office of Regulatory Affairs' Baltimore District import operations group, inspecting spices at the port of Baltimore in 2000. The FDA had been front and center in warning the public about tainted spinach, and contaminated peanut butter, though it is conducting about half the number of food safety inspections that it did three years ago.

The cuts by the Food and Drug Administration come despite a barrage of high-profile food recalls.

"We have a food safety crisis on the horizon," said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

Between 2003 and 2006, FDA food safety inspections dropped 47 percent, according to a database analysis of federal records by The Associated Press.

That's not all that's dropping at the FDA in terms of food safety. The analysis also shows:

_There are 12 percent fewer FDA employees in field offices who concentrate on food issues.

_Safety tests for U.S.-produced food have dropped nearly 75 percent, from 9,748 in 2003 to 2,455 last year, according to the agency's own statistics.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the FDA, at the urging of Congress, increased the number of food inspectors and inspections amid fears that the nation's food system was vulnerable to terrorists. Inspectors and inspections spiked in 2003, but now both have fallen enough to erase the gains.

"The only difference is now it's worse, because there are more inspections to do _ more facilities _ and more food coming into America, which requires more inspections," said Tommy Thompson, who as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services pushed to increase the numbers. He's now part of a coalition lobbying to turn around several years of stagnant spending.

I would never have expected to see Tommy Thompson on the side of angels. It shows how bad things have become.

To return back to that saying by Grover Norquist, about getting the government small enough to drown in a bathtub: There are very good reasons why we need a government bigger than a bathtub and those reasons are sometimes lives saved. The private food industry firms do not have the same incentives to test food for safety as the consumers of those foods would wish them to have. The firms will compare the benefits to them from such testing to its costs to them and will test less than an independent government office would, if such a government bases its testing frequency on the benefits and costs of testing to everybody concerned, including especially the consumers.

Also, there will always be fly-by-night firms who don't care about the safety of the food at all, as well as owners of firms too greedy or too ignorant or too strapped for cash to practice proper health and sanitation measures. In fact, the firms owned by people who are not greedy or ignorant will want government inspections, because one bad case of tainted spinach can kill the whole market for all the spinach producers, even the ones whose spinach would have been fine to eat.

So much for the economist chat. What do I say about a government which cuts back on the safety inspections of the food we eat while every day telling us what great dangers we face from terrorists? Oh dear. I've promised not to use vile blogger language anymore, so I can't answer my own questions.