September 17, 2010

Fixing Food Safety Will Take More than a New Law
Let me start by saying I'm not quite as convinced as Tom Philpott that the food safety bill, about which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said yesterday "we’re not going to be able to get this done before we go home for the elections," is really dead. GOP Sen. Tom Coburn has placed a hold on the bill -- against the apparent wishes of even the GOP leader Sen. Mitch McConnell. My reading of the coverage is that there's still quite a bit of posturing going on -- as Senators do enjoy doing.

Indeed, I wouldn't count out a last-minute change of heart from Coburn, especially if he gets an earful from constituents and colleagues.

However, Philpott's main point -- that the FDA and EPA are hopelessly captured by the industries they are charged with regulating -- is spot on. The same issue came up with financial regulatory reform -- many pundits and bloggers have pointed out that it doesn't matter how much power regulators have if they are unwilling or too incompetent to wield it. Just because the Securities and Exchange Commission can now act more aggressively against banks doesn't mean they can't be sweet-talked out of it by lobbyists, just as they were before the financial crisis.

It's the same with the FDA. There's no question that existing law gave the FDA plenty of power and opportunity to go after the farm behind the current salmonella egg scare. But they didn't -- whether through communications breakdowns or due to simple acceptance of a system that relies on corporate self-regulation. Much of the source for the enforcement crisis springs from the legacy of years of Republican anti-government rhetoric along with various legislative tactics they've used that were designed to undercut regulators authority and autonomy. Now we're stuck in the viscious circle of ineffective federal agencies convincing voters that government isn't worth investing in, which makes the agencies even more ineffective. Wash, rinse, repeat.

As important as the food safety bill is -- and it is important and we may yet see it passed -- the real problem is that one of the major political parties has successfully eroded the federal government's ability to regulate industry and thus protect its citizens. President Obama, superman though he may be, is in no position to reverse that trend without an awful lot of public support. In the end, it won't be that the FDA and EPA that have failed us. It's that, through apathy, inattention and gullibility, it will be we who have failed them.

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