Sunday, January 18, 2015

Food Safety Regulation


Opinion

Whether it’s irony or just fortunate timing, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), with its new package of regulations, is coming to life just as bipartisan majorities in Congress appear to be getting serious about putting a bridle on a runaway bureaucracy.

On Jan. 15, 2015, Lydia Zuraw, Washington, D.C., correspondent for Food Safety News, reported that the Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA) passed the House by a 250-175 vote. Now in the Senate, the RAA is sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Congressman Collin Peterson (D-MN).
 
The White House is threatening to veto this regulatory reform largely over arguments about how it will make life tougher for the Obama administration.

There are any number of organizations that put numbers on the cost of federal regulations to the economy, and, in the form of mandates, to state and local governments. The amount may vary, but there is not much disagreement that it’s a huge number.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a Washington D.C.-based libertarian think tank, is out with its 21st-annual report entitled, “Ten Thousand Commandments.” CEI finds the regulatory cost per household stands at $14,974, or 23 percent of average household income.

CEI also figures that, when you add federal revenues to the costs of regulatory compliance, Uncle Sam’s take of the entire economy is running at about 31 percent. At least twice during the Obama administration, the Federal Register’s page count has topped a record-setting 81,000 pages.

Quibble as we may about the costs of this regulatory burden, when we are debating specific regulations, we tend to focus on the need and benefit. Congress passed FSMA in 2010 because it wants the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent foodborne illnesses, not just react to it.

FDA, consumers, academia, industry, and those who had been victims of foodborne illness were all on the same page when FSMA was passed. These constituents have been kept involved by the FDA team working on implementation. The few bucks per year that we all pay for food safety at the federal level is not something that most folks even think about. As for the costs imposed on the industry, investments in food safety should also be the best business decisions.

Still, we always need to ask about the possibility of an alternative for any regulations. Is there something with less complexity and costs that could achieve the same results? In food safety, we can at least say that we’ve been there, done that.

It was called the  “Poison Squad,” and, from the 1880s to the 1890s, strapping young men working for USDA’s Chief Chemist Harvey W. Wiley voluntarily consumed chemicals and adulterated foods, all to advance food safety. This was in the years prior to enactment of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

Wiley, a veteran who got his medical degree in Indiana after the Civil War, is seen as the “Father of the FDA.” He clearly was the last federal official to be forced to combat a flood of harmful food products with no regulatory support whatsoever.

I do think that, if we brought back the “Poison Squad,” we’d have to be more inclusive. But I think we’d also not want it limited to federal employees dining in the basement at USDA. No,  I think we’d want to spread that honor around. Got any ideas?
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