08 Feb 2009

Does the Salmonella Outbreak Prove the Need for Bigger Government?

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Earlier I blogged about the Georgia peanut butter plant (I love that misleading phrase) and how leftists automatically assumed it proved the need for a stronger FDA, when a hardcore libertarian would argue that it shows you can’t trust government to keep your food (or your planes) safe. Today at LRC’s blog David Kramer offers more of the story:

For those of you following the story about the salmonella outbreak resulting from tainted peanut products that were produced at a Georgia plant–an outbreak which is now responsible for at least eight deaths and 575 illnesses in 43 states, I noticed something quite revealing in this latest report on the incident:

“Problems at the plant are not new. FDA inspectors found in 2001 [sic] that products potentially were exposed to insecticides, one of several violations uncovered during the last visit federal officials made before the current food-poisoning scare, according to a report obtained by The Associated Press.”

Further on, the article says:

“Some of the problems FDA discovered at the plant in 2001 are similar to those found last month, when federal inspectors returned to the plant after nearly eight years [emphasis mine].”

Let’s reflect on those two quotes. In 2001, the FDA sent its health inspectors out to inspect a food plant. The inspectors uncovered what is considered an unacceptable/possibly dangerous situation at the plant. Why did the FDA then wait EIGHT YEARS to send their health inspectors back for a follow-up visit to the same plant to see if the situation has been rectified, and to see if any other unacceptable situations may have cropped up since their first inspection?

Kramer later on comes up with a great response to those who say, “Well, it’s because George Bush likes dead Americans and so he slashed the FDA’s budget”:

If these people think that the EIGHT YEAR gap was due to underfunding, well since the FDA has still been around since 2001, the FDA obviously had enough time and money to send out notices (how about cheap, fast, efficient paperless emails?) alerting all food retailers of the initial situation at the Georgia plant–but warning the retailers that the FDA is so underfunded that it won’t be able to do a follow-up visit for EIGHT YEARS. (You would think that, at the very least, it is the FDA’s responsibility and professional duty to do this.)

What a great response. People who are fans of the government make up all sorts of ridiculous excuses for it. But Kramer is perfectly right: If it really were a matter of inadequate funding, and the FDA people knew that this peanut butter plant was operating very dangerously, then they should have notified its customers of the possible dangers, and told them to hire their own private inspections.

For what it’s worth, in FY 2008 the FDA’s budget request was $2.1 billion. (I think their actual number must have been close to this, but I got sick of browsing their website.) In FY 2001, the last (fiscal) year that could be fully attributed to Clinton, the FDA’s budget request was $1.3 billion. So yeah, I can see how George Bush’s paltry increase of 62% during the period in question is probably the culprit. If only we hadn’t had such a Rothbardian in office, the FDA might not have had its hands tied. Ah well, there will be no food deaths in the U.S. for at least four years now. Phew!

(BTW, perhaps I shouldn’t be so sarcastic when people really died. That is a tragedy, and if the people running that plant really were as reckless as some of the reports indicate, that is a serious matter. But I just wonder if the people shouting “Bush budget cuts!” even looked at the numbers, or if they were just so sure that had to be it that they didn’t even need to check. It is possible, of course, that despite the increase in overall funding, some critical aspect of enforcement received less money, but I have not seen someone make the case. And even if it were true, again, that really just underscores why it’s crazy to entrust food safety to the political process. In the eyes of their worst critics, are Republicans going to all of a sudden care about poor people from now on? If not, then do we just have to eat peanut butter during Democratic administrations, or maybe can we think about depoliticizing this service?)

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