The Myth of 'Self-Regulation'
Peanut scare a new crisis of deregulation
Sunday, February 01, 2009
The good people of Blakely, Ga. — a town that calls itself the “Peanut Capital of the World” — are relearning long-lost lessons about the perils of unfettered capitalism. Along with former Wall Street secretaries and unemployed bank clerks, they have become collateral damage in an age of deregulation and an ideology that defined government as always the problem, never the solution.
Virginia-based Peanut Corp. of America shut down its processing plant outside Blakely, in southwest Georgia, after government officials traced a deadly salmonella outbreak to that facility. Now, according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters Jeffry Scott and Craig Schneider, the locals wonder about the future of the plant, which has laid off most of its 50 or so employees.
“You have to understand, the population here has been declining for two decades, and the peanut is the bedrock of the community, what keeps us going,” Hilary Halford, president of the Blakely-Early County Chamber of Commerce, told Scott. “It’s everything.”
Food and Drug Administration inspectors say plant managers found evidence of salmonella in its peanut butter products but still sold them, in violation of the law. Plant executives had a very simple reason for hesitating to destroy the products — it would have cost the company money.
Instead, they bought the services of an outside lab, which declared the peanut butter safe. (That sounds suspiciously like Wall Street, which paid ratings agencies that declared exotic financial instruments to be nearly risk-free. Those financial instruments have since wrecked the world banking system.)
Since then, salmonella traced to the facility has sickened more than 500 people in 43 states and may be linked to the deaths of several others.
Did plant executives violate the rules? Apparently. Should they be prosecuted? Absolutely.
But wouldn’t consumers and — in the long run — even the plant, its executives and employees have been better off with a tightly regulated system that would have prevented those violations? With more federal and state scrutiny, plant managers would have been less likely to break the rules because they would have feared getting caught.
It’s simple human nature. Any system of rules and regulations is only as good as its enforcement. And lately, the nation’s food-safety enforcement has been lax.
“Unfortunately, food safety hasn’t been ... a high priority over the last decade or so,” said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. “There has been erosion at (the Department of Agriculture) and the FDA, especially the FDA. Congress kept putting more and more on the FDA’s plate, but it didn’t appropriate more money. ... The number of people in food safety has gone down dramatically over the last few years.”
Those were the years of cutting taxes and minimizing government, which was routinely denounced as wasteful, inept and overbearing. Businesses were allowed to police themselves, a laughable concept that suggests that business executives are exempt from the human foibles that plague the rest of us, including greed.
That “business knows best” mythology was pervasive at the Georgia state Capitol, too. So it’s no surprise that state officials did little better in overseeing safety at the plant. The Georgia Department of Agriculture found repeated violations of sanitation standards over the past several years, but a state agriculture official referred to the violations as “housekeeping” problems.
Now, however, Georgia legislators, including Republicans, are suddenly clamoring for stiffer laws and more oversight. Indeed, the entire country is in the midst of a cultural shift as Americans rediscover the many reasons that smart government oversight of commerce and industry makes good sense.
In the decades he has been involved in food safety, Doyle said, he has encountered many companies where executives are “highly committed” to ensuring the safety of food. But other companies “just don’t want to get caught,” he said.
Of course, it’s hard for consumers to tell the difference, which is why strict government oversight in necessary.
· Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor. Her column appears Sundays.
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