Peanut Butter and Privatizing Food Safety

By Steven Gdula

“The trusting confidence of the American public in the efficiency of laws was never more clearly shown nor more grossly betrayed than in the matter of food inspection.”

So said one George W. Wickersham of the National Civil Service Reform League when asked by journalists to comment on his investigation of the habits of U.S. food inspectors — in 1933. Wickersham’s quote came from the best selling book 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, an exposé that warned the American public about the dangers lurking in the food it was eating. The authors, Arthur Kallet and Frederick Schlink, became heroes for blowing the whistle on the lax performance by people who were supposed to be watchful of the foods packaged and sold to the American people.

Schlink and Kallet later had even greater success with their periodical, Consumer Union Reports, a precursor to Consumer Reports. With the country facing tough economic times, Consumer Union Reports garnered trust by scrutinizing packaged foods in a “test kitchen” through “scientific means,” and then warning consumers of potential hazards of ingesting the preservatives and additives they found. Each product was assigned a rating of “Best Buy,” “Also Acceptable” or “Not Acceptable.”

The authors picked up the fight for food safety at the point where they believed the government had failed, most notably in the implementation of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Schlink and Kallet called the Act “feeble and ineffective.”

The law’s aim was that by holding companies accountable for the contents of their packages — by forcing them to label each package’s ingredients—the food industry would refrain from selling potentially harmful foods to the American public. The ever-present threat that the government could inspect the disclosures of the labels for accuracy would force food manufacturers to police themselves.

Schlink and Kallet saw how futile such a law was then, and as the recent tragic deaths and illnesses caused by salmonella-contaminated peanut products have shown, food inspection laws and the agency that enforce them are ineffective now. Even inspectors from the private sector often overlook the actual food products, focusing on the cleanliness of the machinery that packages them. As a result, a plant can receive a high score giving the impression of an immaculate operation even when dangerous bacteria are present.

Certainly Stewart Parnell, the top executive at The Peanut Corporation of America, who according to documents, knowingly sent out the tainted peanuts, didn’t fear the efficiency of any of these inspection entities, otherwise his salmonella-tainted products would never have shipped.

Coming little more than a year after salmonella-tainted jalapeno peppers sickened over 1200 people, the peanut fiasco has again shifted attention in Washington to the call for a single government agency to oversee the inspection of foods. Ten years ago, in 1999 the General Accounting Office (as the Government Accountability Office was then known) authored a report the title of which succinctly stated the problem: “US Needs A Single Agency to Administer a Unified, Risk-Based Inspection System.” Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have proposed that a new, single entity take on the combined authority and regulatory enforcement that is currently split between the Food And Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture.

The creation of such an agency would have made great use of some of the moneys in President Obama’s economic stimulus package. But while some of that cash has already put furloughed police back on the streets, a lag time in other cases of anywhere from three months to over a year exists before the financial aid reaches its intended recipients. With that type of window, the question of “if” further contamination occurs becomes “when.”

Historically, laws regulating food safety have been created in response to a loud public outcry after a tragedy or scandal. The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 was signed into law when Schlink and Kallet showed where the government had failed. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which the 1938 Act overhauled, only came about after investigative pieces in Good Housekeeping Magazine, among others, informed readers of the germs and filth characterizing so many meat markets. (The horrific conditions of meat-packing plants and slaughterhouses described in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, also released in 1906, have been said to have influenced then-President Theodore Roosevelt’s urging of The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.)

With lives at stake, it’s time to reexamine the proposal by Durbin, DeLauro and the GAO to eliminate two existing agencies by creating a new one, and one of the first places to start would be looking at the cost; not of forming such an agency but of what the agency would charge for giving a food product the all clear. The government needs to make the process of receiving certification more affordable. And that process has to include not only the manufacturing plant but the food supplier servicing it as well.

Private auditors can charge as little as $1,000 to inspect a plant while the F.D.A. charges $8,000. Now, when faced with that type of disparity in fees, and when food-manufacturing plants have contracted the private auditor that is inspecting them rather than being assigned one by a government monitoring agency, and when they’re writing the check for the inspector’s services, we’re expecting a high degree of integrity from both parties. There’s no placing of value on a human life, but it sure seems like the going rate is somewhere around seven grand.

Steven Gdula lives in San Francisco, Calif.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2009

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