Minor Thoughts

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

A Food Bill Too Far

Last Tuesday, the Senate passed a food safety bill. The House is expected to pass it easily and the President plans to sign it.

They shouldn’t. It’s a bad bill.

One of the biggest problems with food safety is that different agencies are responsible for different parts of the food supply.

In the case of the Wright County Egg salmonella outbreak which resulted in the recall of half a billion eggs earlier this year, the USDA was aware of problems such as dirt and mold in the Iowa facility. But the USDA did not notify the FDA, which has overall authority.

Moreover, the regulatory responsibilities often overlap, leaving agencies unsure who is in charge of what. As an example, Coburn pointed to frozen pizza:

Do my colleagues realize right now when we buy a pizza at the grocery store, if you buy a cheese pizza it comes through the FDA, but if you buy a pepperoni pizza, it gets approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture? How many people in America think that makes sense?

This bill does nothing to change that. It should be rejected on that basis alone.

Second, food safety just isn’t that big of a problem.

Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control, no more than three-thousandths of one percent of food-borne illnesses are fatal in the United States.

Senator Tom Coburn remarked on that as well.

We could spend $100 billion additionally every year and not make food absolutely safe. There are diminishing returns to the dollars we spend. But if you look at what the case is: In 1996, for every 100,000 people in this country, we had 51.2 cases of food-borne illness — the best in the world, by far. Nobody comes close to us in terms of the safety of our food . But, in 2009, we only had 34.8 cases — three times better than anybody else in the world. So the question has to be asked: Why are we doing this now when, in fact, we are on a trendline to markedly decrease it?

Third, this bill will be expensive.

The legislation will cost $1.4 billion over 5 years. This cost does not include an additional $230 million in expenditures that are directly offset by fees collected for those activities (re-inspections, mandatory recalls, etc.). The total cost of the bill is over $1.6 billion over 5 years. Of these costs, $335 million are for non-FDA programs - the food allergy grant program, implementation grants to assist producers, assistance grants to states and Indian Tribes.

Fourth, this bill gives the FDA new powers that it doesn’t need and that it will probably abuse.

Most worrisome is the fact the bill as it currently is written would give the FDA the authority to require mandatory recalls of tainted food.

At first blush this seems reasonable, but the current system of voluntary recalls already resulted in a $100 million loss to tomato growers in the U.S. when a salmonella outbreak caused the FDA to recommend a recall. It turned out the problem was not tomatoes but jalapeno peppers, but by the time the real culprit was discovered the damage was already done.

Hart points out that bureaucrats with the power to order recalls would be very likely to jump the gun and order a huge recall before all the facts are in. Worse, it would precipitate a fight between the industry and regulators, who currently have a fairly good working relationship.

Coburn noted in his address that inspectors do not need the authority to order recalls

Why don’t they need that authority? Because if you have a problem with your product in the food system in this country, you are going to get sued. You are going to get fined if you do not recall that product.

“You’re going to see (inspectors) pull the trigger prematurely,” Hart said, noting bureaucrats tend to be more worried about doing what’s safe in terms of their jobs rather than what’s right.

This is a bad bill. Rather than modernizing the food safety responsibilities of the federal government, it leaves authority split between more than 30 different agencies. It directly raises costs to small farms and producers. It gives the FDA a large incentive to order damaging recalls with no incentive to protect farmers from hysteria. Finally, it just isn’t needed. America’s food supply is already the safest in the world. Spending more money won’t create any noticeable increase in food safety, only an increase in the price of our food.

For the good of the nation, the House should reject this flawed bill and President Obama should refuse to sign it.

(Note: The House was originally expected to pass the bill easily but now may not be able to, as the bill infringes on the House’s constitutional rights. The Constitution states that all bills for raising revenue must originate in the House. This bill raises revenue and originated in the Senate. Oops.)