Forget the radon in your basement and the asbestos in your attic. Should you now be scared to death about what you eat?
That's the message many politicians and consumer advocates want you to get from several isolated, but high-profile, food contamination incidents that occurred last year. The Clinton administration and its allies in Congress are seeking to capitalize on such events to justify new federal regulations on what we eat and drink.
But are we really in the midst of a food safety crisis? The answer to that is assuredly, "No." Nevertheless, you can expect to see a major media and legislative push this coming August, when a report on the question will be released by the National Academy of Sciences. Advocates of stricter food enforcement have urged the Academy to recommend consolidating food oversight duties into one super-agency that would regulate practically everything you put in your mouth. The Academy devoted two days of meetings in late April to consider the issue. A General Accounting Office study released Monday endorsed the idea.
Food regulation is now mainly carried out by six different agencies in three Cabinet departments, with jurisdictions that often overlap. For instance, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates meat and poultry; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates fruits, vegetables and fish; and the two share jurisdiction over eggs. (No, it's not yolks for one and whites for the other.)
Rethinking federal food policy may be warranted, but there are serious reasons to oppose a food superagency. The primary goal of such an agency would be to eliminate what is alleged to be a conflict of interest at USDA - the fact that its current mission includes both protecting and promoting the nation's food supply.
Critics argue that the second function necessarily undermines the first. But while single-mission agencies may sound good, they are especially susceptible to a fundamental problem - regulators don't bear the cost of their actions.
In his book on overregulation, "Breaking the Vicious Circle," Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer argues that when an agency can ignore the costs it imposes, it is prone to a "single-minded pursuit of a single goal too far, to the point where it brings about more harm than good." Dual-mission agencies don't bear their regulatory costs either, but at least their promotional functions force them to consider tradeoffs with their regulatory functions.
Contrast this with the group that bears every regulatory cost - consumers, who in the real world must make tradeoffs in choosing how to spend their money. We, for instance, could spend thousands extra to buy a super-safe Volvo. Buying a subcompact instead doesn't mean we're unconcerned about safety. It simply means there are better things we could buy with our limited resources - like education or health care for our kids.
The United States is generally considered to have the safest food supply in the world. And new technologies, such as food irradiation (itself long delayed by government inaction), are making our food safer all the time.
Oddly, it is scientific advances that have allowed reformers to generate a food "crisis," by being able to detect previously unidentified food-borne illnesses. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out, "Improvements in our ability to recognize and track these diseases . . . will result in an increase in the number of reported cases and outbreaks even if there is no increase in actual incidents.
Public health experts calculate that between 600 and 9,000 people die from food-borne illnesses each year.
But before you get scared into an unplanned crash diet, take a closer look at those numbers. They are derived from a very small number of reported cases and an estimate about the magnitude of unreported illnesses. David Murray, research director for the Statistical Assessment Service, notes that "estimates that vary by 100 percent are often an indication that the model upon which the extrapolation is based is not very solid." The food-poisoning estimate varies by 1,500 percent!
There is another reason to be suspicious about the need for a food superagency. The federal government recently unveiled two major new safety programs - one introduced by USDA for meat and poultry inspection in July 1996, and the other by FDA for seafood inspection in December 1997. FDA called its program a "state-of-the-art food safety system" and USDA insisted that its rules would "substantially reduce the incidence of pathogens that can cause food-borne illness.
Now, even before the regulations have been fully phased in, reformers are already back at the drawing board. Were the USDA-FDA programs simply appetizers for new regulation, or were they red herrings? Federal regulators continue to chase after smaller and smaller risks. Efforts like these not only waste money; they can backfire.
Proper handling and thorough cooking can kill off most bacterial contaminants, but a public led to believe the government is assuring risk-free food could take fewer precautions on its own. And because pathogens cannot be completely eliminated, such actions could result in an even greater threat to public health.
When it comes to food safety, a single-mission superagency could be the biggest threat of all.
Gregory Conko is a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
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