Ideologues are up in arms, calling foul over what actually are rather limited moves toward imposing some government regulations on the market, after the free-for-all during the Bush Administration. The need for regulation is hardly limited to the financial and housing markets. Look at food producers and see the reason the just announced plans of the Obama Administration to beef up the FDA’s budget and personnel deserve three cheers.
Food industry giants with brand names like Kellogg who have an interest in ensuring that their customers will not consume contaminated products rely on private inspectors. That is—inspectors that they hire, who notify the individual factories ahead of time about their visit, and who have little time to inspect the many large plants they must cover. A New York Times investigation that uncovered these great limitations on that which private inspectors can achieve [here] also reveals that the government has very few inspectors to monitor the nation’s food supply.
The investigation shows that in recent years inspections regularly failed to detect serious problems. Take the 2007-2008 case of the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company, which involved hamburger meat fed to schoolchildren: the company had passed 17 separate audits in 2007. It was only when an undercover video showing sickly cows being forced into the slaughterhouse became public that the company was forced to recall 143 million pounds of beef in early 2008.
"The contributions of third-party audits to food safety is the same as the contribution of mail-order diploma mills to education," said Mansour Samadpour, a Seattle food safety consultant who has worked with companies nationwide, to the Times.
Inspections are not required by the government. They serve mainly to minimize the liability of the food companies, who increasingly rely on their suppliers to regulate themselves. Many of these companies in turn choose the cheapest forms of inspection, costing as little as 1/8th of the amount the FDA spends on inspecting a plant.
Even when inspections discover problems, it is up to the food companies to fix them. In 2006, Nebraska Beef was linked to an E. coli outbreak. Upon investigation, the USDA found that the company had not followed through on the recommendations of inspectors who had identified problems at the plant in the preceding months.
"The only thing that matters is productivity," declared Robert A. LaBudde, a food safety expert who has consulted with food companies for 30 years, adding that "you only get in trouble if someone in the media traces it back to you, and that’s rare, like a meteor strike." Five years ago, a sausage plant hired him to determine the species of bacillus affecting its meat. The owner refused to complete the testing. "I called them ‘anthrax sausages,’ and said they could be killing older people in the state, and still they wouldn’t do it."
Under the Bush Administration, the FDA proposed expanding the role of private companies to inspect the hundreds of thousands of foreign facilities that ship food to the U.S. The FDA did also propose a voluntary certification program that would strengthen standards and alert federal authorities to problems — but this idea was stopped dead in its tracks by effective resistance from the food industry. The FDA under Obama has a lot of ground to cover if what we feed our children and eat is to be trusted.
Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of The Moral Dimension (Free Press, 1988). To contact him, write email@example.com. For more, go here.