E-coli: How Not to Cut Government Spending

Annys Shin reports:

First it was spinach. Then tomatoes. Now possibly green onions. Over the past three months, fresh produce has been the culprit in one episode of food-borne illness after another, the latest an E. coli outbreak that appears to be linked to green onions served at Taco Bell restaurants in the Northeast. More than 60 people have been sickened in that outbreak. The patchwork of federal and state regulations that is supposed to ensure food safety has become less effective as the nation’s produce supply has grown increasingly industrial. Three months after the spinach scare, there is no agreement on what should be done to reduce health risks from the nation’s fruits and vegetables even as each episode of illness has heightened a sense of urgency … The FDA’s critics say the agency doesn’t have the manpower to do more. From 2003 to 2006, the budget for the agency’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has fallen 37 percent, according to agency data. That has meant fewer inspectors and less frequent inspections. In 2005, the FDA conducted 4,573 inspections of domestic food-processing operations. For 2006, the agency said, it hopes to conduct 3,400. There are more than 12,000 such plants in the nation.

Look, I’m in favor of cutting wasteful government spending but then President Bush says we should spend on our priorities. I guess healthy food is not one of them. An FDA top dog was on CNN explaining this by saying we are in austere times. Huh? I thought the Bush crowd was talking about this being the best economy ever. But maybe another Washington Post story explains this comment:

Steady condemnation from conservatives for the Iraq Study Group report may be providing some cover to the Bush administration as it completes its own review of strategy in Iraq, apparently with little enthusiasm for the panel’s prescription of U.S. troop withdrawal and dialogue with Syria and Iran. The criticism of the panel, co-chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), has burst forth from the leading institutions of the right: the National Review, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Weekly Standard; conservative talk radio; and scholars at some of Washington’s top think tanks.

It does seem the neocon stay the course crowd are urging President Bush to ignore the Baker-Hamilton recommendations, which will mean continuation of this very expensive failed venture. And the number of deaths from E.coli will pale in comparison to the loss of lives from this neocon nightmare.

Update: AB reader Don Marek points us to John Stossel as he criticizes how the FDA operates:

Here’s a job that’s really for the birds: staring at dead chickens. The job is tedious, done in unpleasant places, and largely useless. But you and I pay thousands of people to do it … So if staring at dead chickens is your idea of a good time, there is a job for you with the USDA, inspecting poultry. And don’t worry that you’ll lose the job because it doesn’t do much good – how often does that cause the government to close a program? I learned about these dead-bird watchers when a union, Government Workers Local 2357, persuaded “20/20” go into poultry-processing plants with hidden cameras to document their claim that conditions in the plants are deplorable and that chickens are contaminated with bacteria. Inside the plants, with bird intestines strung all over the place, it was easy to see why the chickens we buy are often crawling with germs. In fact, we had a lab perform tests, and they found four kinds of bacteria: yersinia, salmonella, listeria and campylobacter. Food-borne bacteria can be deadly; it kills hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans every year. Hundreds of thousands of people get sick from it. Many of you who thought you had the stomach flu this year really had food poisoning from bacteria. We should treat raw chicken as if it were covered in fecal matter – it’s crawling with bacteria. Keep it away from the salad, and wash the cutting board. Local 2357 had a different solution: The government must hire more union inspectors. Apparently if more people stared at the birds, they’d be better at seeing invisible germs … The chicken industry likes things the way they are because it gets free employees. They have taxpayer-paid inspectors to make sure all the birds look good; the inspectors even stamp the bacteria-laden birds with a government label that promises they’re wholesome. Microbial testing of random samples would be cheaper. And scientists told us the best protection would be to treat poultry with cobalt irradiation, which kills virtually all disease-causing organisms and doesn’t require paying government inspectors to watch dead birds go by.

So what is Mr. Stossel telling us? That there’s a better way to run the FDA program? If so, let’s push for the new and improved form of FDA regulation. Or is Mr. Stossel advocating the self policing system that Don Marek prefers? If so, I have a question for the laissez-faire crowd – why isn’t the industry doing this on its own accord?