Effect Measure

Nothing like a massive food contamination outbreak from a plant in your state to concentrate the minds of state legislators (more here and links therein). Especially when an important industry is involved. We’re talking Georgia peanuts, of course. Peanuts employ an estimated 50,000 workers in Georgia, accounting for some $2.5 billion in the state’s economy. So yesterday the Georgia Senate unanimously passed a food safety bill and sent it on to the Georgia House. On the surface it seems like a good move, but its chief sponsor was a Republican, so that automatically makes me look closer. I’m not an expert on Georgia politics, but some of what I see makes me wonder.

At the moment Georgia (or any other state) does not require a food manufacturing plant to notify anyone that internal testing has discovered contamination. The Georgia peanut plant at the center of the massive multi-state salmonella outbreak had such test results but kept them private. Indeed they appear to have sent out peanut products they knew had shown salmonella contamination. If they had been required to report these results, it is possible that the outbreak could have been prevented. But not necessarily. It would depend upon whether the agency receiving the report was able to do anything about it in a timely way and what they did about it. One assumes that the relevant agency would be Georgia’s state health department, but this law would have the reports go to the state’s Department of Agriculture, the agency charged with both promoting and regulating agricultural products.

As it now stands, the law requires notification of the Agriculture Department within 24 hours of positive test results. If the company submits a food safety plan, there is no requirement as to how often testing must be done, a Republican amendment that observers feel severely weakened the bill. So the Agriculture Department must now assume the added task of reviewing food safety plans.

If the Agriculture agency were adequately staffed that might not be a problem, but it isn’t. Its commissioner has been begging for funds to allow adequate food inspection. Currently there are 15 unfilled positions for food inspector. Not to worry. The Republican sponsor of the bill says it will enable the agency to do without them (even though it requires inspectors to inspect if a contamination notification is made):

But supporters of the proposal said it would allow the department to better stretch its resources.

“I think this would eliminate the possibility of a lot of other personnel,” said Bulloch, “because this would raise the red flag.” (MSNBC)

It raises red flags, all right. Whenever I see a Republican sponsoring a food safety bill the red flags start flying all over the place. So this is a bill requiring notification of an understaffed Agriculture department if there is a bad test, a test not required if the company files a food safety plan with the same understaffed agency. Moreover the agency in question is not a health agency, but one whose job entails promoting the regulated industry. This sounds much like an invitation not to test diligently — a recipe for so-called “tip-toe” testing.

The agriculture commissioner probably (but inadvertently) put it accurately when he said this:

“We will be the national leader in getting a report system to help us feel more safe,” said Irvin. “What we did today was a positive step. And it will make Georgia a national leader.” (MSNBC)

Yes. Georgia will be a national leader in helping us “feel safe.” Now we need to have some leaders actually help us be safe.

Comments

  1. #1 Jeff Koeze
    February 21, 2009

    I share your suspicious trend of mind, but having read the text of the bill, I don’t think this amendment is a big problem. Under the original bill, the Commissioner of Ag would have set testing rules for food. As you can imagine, determining effective sampling strategies for probably hundreds of different foods in hundreds of different settings would be massive, and I would add, highly technical task. (Unless we went to some crude — and expensive — one size fits all regime, or maybe S, M, L.) It is worth pointing out, as I’m sure this blog’s editors know better than I, that a deep knowledge of statistical inference is not going to part of the skill set of the typical environmental health specialist.

    The amendment provides that if a company submits a testing plan as part of a food safety plan, and if the state approves it, then they can use that plan. The approvals would be a slightly less massive job. The prime benefit would be the advantage early on in getting a look at everybody’s testing strategies. Some would be highly sophisticated, and could be used as models.

    Before everyone jumps on the more testing bandwagon we need to be clear that monitoring a test regime of this magnitude will require a lot of staff and a lot of computer hardware and office space.

    I’ll also point out that the easiest thing in the world for an unscrupulous food manufacturer to do is to evade a regime like this. It is just as easy to pull your samples from a bulk package of previously tested product as it is off your line.

    I’d rather see the money and effort go into boots on ground — more, better trained inspectors and more frequent inspections.

    One last thing. Keep an eye on the locavores. A substantial sub-set of the let’s call it “micro-producer” community views additional regulation as an attempt to stamp them out. I don’t want to argue about the merits, but I think the politics will get interesting in some states — say Vermont.

  2. #2 Ron
    February 22, 2009

    Jeff raises an important point. Historically, increasing regulations of this type penalize small producers, pushing the system to greater size, cost cutting and centralization, thus increasing the problem rather than solving it. Recall the spinach incident of last year, also of wide impact due to centralized post-harvest processing. Both incidents had such a high impact because a single processing plant supplied such a wide sector with product. “Economies of scale” and mistaken ideas of “efficiency” inspire greater regulatory burdens that are actually counterproductive, making our food system less safe instead of safer. This is not what is needed.

  3. #3 eddie
    February 24, 2009

    Are these regulations, or the regime they are proposed to replace, meant to override laws against assault, reckless endangerment, etc?
    I thought the idea of independent testing was to avoid the perp hiding evidence of wrongdoing.