Mary had a little lamb/ And when she saw it sicken/ She shipped it off to Packingtown/ And now it's labeled chicken.
That little ditty famously summarized the message of “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair's 1906 expose of conditions in America's meat-packing industry. Sinclair's muckraking helped Theodore Roosevelt pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act – and for most of the next century, Americans trusted government inspectors to keep their food safe.
Lately, however, there always seems to be at least one food-safety crisis in the headlines – tainted spinach, poisonous peanut butter and, currently, the attack of the killer tomatoes. The declining credibility of U.S. food regulation has even led to a foreign-policy crisis: There have been mass demonstrations in South Korea protesting the pro-American prime minister's decision to allow imports of U.S. beef, banned after mad cow disease was detected in 2003.
How did America find itself back in The Jungle?
It started with ideology. Hard-core American conservatives have long idealized the Gilded Age, regarding everything that followed – not just the New Deal, but even the Progressive Era – as a great diversion from the true path of capitalism.
Thus, when Grover Norquist, the anti-tax advocate, was asked about his ultimate goal, he replied that he wanted a restoration of the way America was “up until Teddy Roosevelt, when the socialists took over. The income tax, the death tax, regulation, all that.”
The late Milton Friedman agreed, calling for the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration. It was unnecessary, he argued. Private companies would avoid taking risks with public health to safeguard their reputations and to avoid damaging class-action lawsuits. (Friedman, unlike almost every other conservative I can think of, viewed lawyers as the guardians of free-market capitalism.)
Agencies made ineffective
Such hard-core opponents of regulation were once part of the political fringe, but with the rise of modern movement conservatism, they moved into the corridors of power. They never had enough votes to abolish the FDA or eliminate meat inspections, but they could and did set about making the agencies charged with ensuring food safety ineffective.
They did this in part by simply denying these agencies enough resources to do the job. For example, the work of the FDA has become vastly more complex over time thanks to the combination of scientific advances and globalization. Yet the agency has a substantially smaller work force now than it did in 1994, the year Republicans took over Congress.
Perhaps even more important, however, was the systematic appointment of foxes to guard henhouses.
Thus, when mad cow disease was detected in the U.S. in 2003, the Department of Agriculture was headed by Ann Veneman, a former food-industry lobbyist. And the department's response to the crisis – which amounted to consistently downplaying the threat and rejecting calls for more extensive testing – seemed driven by the industry's agenda.
One amazing decision came in 2004, when a Kansas producer asked for permission to test its own cows, so that it could resume exports to Japan. You might have expected the Bush administration to applaud this example of self-regulation. But permission was denied, because other beef producers feared consumer demands that they follow suit.
When push comes to shove, it seems, the imperatives of crony capitalism trump professed faith in free markets.
Eventually, the department did expand its testing, and at this point most countries that initially banned U.S. beef have allowed it back into their markets. But the South Koreans still don't trust us. And while some of that distrust may be irrational – the beef issue has become entangled with questions of Korean national pride, which has been insulted by clumsy American diplomacy – it's hard to blame them.
Regulation's good for business
The ironic thing is that the Agriculture Department's deference to the beef industry actually ended up backfiring. Because potential foreign buyers didn't trust our safety measures, beef producers spent years excluded from their most important overseas markets.
But then, the same thing can be said of other cases in which the administration stood in the way of effective regulation. Most notably, the administration's refusal to countenance any restraints on predatory lending helped prepare the ground for the subprime crisis, which has cost the financial industry far more than it ever made on overpriced loans.
The moral of this story is that failure to regulate effectively isn't just bad for consumers, it's bad for business.
It's time to get back to the business of ensuring that American food is safe.