And now, a billion for the food police?

President Obama last week accused the Bush administration of creating a “hazard to public health” by failing to curb food contamination problems. Mr. Bush’s successor announced he will form a “Food Safety Working Group” to “upgrade our food safety laws for the 21st century.”

Money came up. The president will ask Congress for $1 billion in new funds — for starters — to add FDA inspectors and modernize laboratories. He further announced the Agriculture Department is moving ahead with a rule change banning sick or disabled cattle from the food supply.

“There are certain things only a government can do,” Mr. Obama said. “And one of those things is ensuring that the foods we eat, and the medicines we take, are safe and do not cause us harm.”

“Food safety” sounds like an issue everyone can get behind. Getting “downer cows” out of the food chain certainly sounds like a no-brainer. But in fact, the history of government regulation of food safety has been far from perfect. After all, no one shut down or even reduced the budget of the FDA, the USDA, and a score of other regulatory agencies in recent years. If “government is the answer,” why have there been recurrent problems?

Furthermore, the assertion that “only government can do it” flies in the face of common sense.

Imagine you pull off the highway late in the evening in a strange part of the country. On one side of the exit rises a lighted sign for “Greasyburgers — locally owned and cheapest in town. Our last customer is now out of the hospital and doing fine.” (My apologies to the real “Greasyburgers,” should there prove to be one. This is intended to be a hypothetical example.)

On the other side of the exit you spot the familiar, lighted logo of McDonald’s, or Burger King, or Wendy’s. Which do you choose?

The adventurous are always free to try the locally owned eatery. But we all know the majority of motorists will choose the well-known brand name, not because the food is necessarily a gourmet delight, but because we realize that corporation has millions of dollars invested in a brand name, and thus a vested interest in protecting that brand by delivering a consistently wholesome product.

Should budget shortfalls require federal food regulatory agencies to shut down tomorrow, do we really believe manufacturers who have spent billions building up the reputations of things called “Cheerios” and “Campbell’s Soup” would immediately start ignoring the long-term costs of adding harmful adulterants to make better short-term profits tomorrow?

“Branding” is a free-market device, requiring government action only to protect the trademark, through which consumers reward providers with their repeat business for maintaining high standards. Most recent problems in the food chain have involved products which consumers could not readily identify by brand name. Maybe we need more “branding,” rather than less.

When we fail to recognize the brand, instinctively, despite a solid century of government “food safety regulation,” we don’t always act on the presumption: “Government regulators would already have shut down any eatery that was below par, so it’s equally safe to eat at Greasyburgers.”

Yes, the American public (whether or not their confidence is well placed) have long since accepted a role for government regulation in the food and medical supply chains. So long as they’re in the business, of course we want those jobs done as effectively as possible.

But it’s also fair to ask President Obama if part of his new food safety initiative will include HR 875, introduced by far-left Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro, chairwoman of the Agriculture Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, whose husband, Stanley Greenberg, is a leading Democratic political strategist and consultant whose clients have included pesticide and fertilizer giant Monsanto. (Though both Mr. Greenberg’s outfit and Ms. DeLauro’s office tell me, rather insistently, that the Monsanto relationship ended a decade ago.)

Now, bills that start out overly broad are sometimes narrowed and improved during the hearing process — that’s what hearings are for. All the current Internet hyperventilating over Rep. DeLauro’s proposed “Food Police” may turn out to be a tad overblown.

Nonetheless, the bill does appear to define “food producers” so broadly as to invite suspicion that even a small, backyard gardener growing food for his or her own family — or for local sale at a roadside stand — would be subject to uniform federal regulations (enforced by state agricultural police) requiring pesticide use and so forth, all in the name of “public safety.”

Would HR 875 effectively ban seed banking and small-scale organic farming? Would it allow the Food Police to trespass on private property to “check our vegetables”? Would it mandate 24-hour GPS tracking of farm animals? Could lands and crops be seized for “non-compliance”?

A lot can be justified under the rubric of “food safety.” Do we really believe granting a monopoly to large-scale factory farms, with their standardized artificial fertilizers and pesticides, is safest for our health and nutritional needs in the long run?

As H.L. Mencken said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

One Comment to “And now, a billion for the food police?”

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