Mike the Mad Biologist

E. coli conservatives’ is Rick Perlstein‘s phrase, not mine. After all, the Mad Biologist is quite partial to E. coli; I suppose that makes me an E. coli liberal. Most E. coli, including those isolated from retail meats, are not harmful, so I’ve always thought the bug gets a bad rap. Only a minority of strains cause intestinal disease (e.g., Shigella), unless they wind up in a place they’re not supposed to be, such as the bloodstream or urinary tract. These strains, known as ‘ExPEC’, which is short for ‘extra-intestinal pathogenic E. coli‘, are only a small, albeit nasty, percentage of E. coli, and cause disease because they possess genes known as virulence factors (there are also point mutations that increase virulence). Granted, this has nothing to do with Perlstein’s column, which had to do with the failure of the FDA to keep out food supply safe. Onto the column.

Perlstein writes about the FDA:

The Associated Press studied the records and found that between 2003 and 2006 the Food and Drug Administration conducted 47 percent fewer safety inspections. FDA field offices have 12 percent fewer employees. Safety tests for food produced in the United States have gone down by three quarters–have almost ground to a halt–in the previous year alone.

What does that mean, in practical terms? Consider the peanut butter.

Factories producing the foods most susceptible to contamination, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, are supposed to be inspected every year. (That’s cold comfort to those who ate this year’s bad batches of spinach, lettuce, cantaloupes and tomatoes.) Since the last known outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter was in Australia in the 1990s, that puts it in the “low-risk” category; peanut butter factories are inspected only every two to three years.

People started getting sick in February. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control traced the illnesses back to a single plant in Sylvester, Ga. The next day, the FDA arrived for a post hoc inspection (by then 425 people in 44 states had been sickened). Then they covered their own back: “What you saw with the spinach and certainly what you saw with the spinach and certainly what you saw with the peanut butter, is when we see those signals, we’re going to act to protect the public health,” a spokesman promised.

He was saying: The system worked. In a sense, he was right. This was the system working as it is presently designed. Barn door: closed. Cow: already long gone. That, basically, is as good as it gets in the modern FDA.

In fact, the system is so bad, that it took an internal investigation by the offending company for PR reasons to expose how the contamination took place. This only emphasizes Perlstein’s point: the FDA is massively underfunded. As far as I can tell, on the microbiology side, any program that serves the public good, and conflicts with business, will be threatened with either underfunding or cooptation by business interests (which is why I attended the NARMS meeting). And Perlstein rightly blames the root cause–modern conservatism which sees virtually all regulation as an impediment to business, and thus, A Bad Thing:

It was over 35 years ago, in Conscience of a Conservative, when Barry Goldwater wrote these stirring words: “I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient for I mean to reduce its size.” Twenty years after that, President Reagan intoned at his first inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

But Barry Goldwater lost his 1964 presidential race in a landslide. Reagan was inaugurated, and we began seeing headlines like “Wide Spectrum of Regulations Set for Reagan Team’s Scalpel.” But actually, the Reagan team wasn’t able to deregulate all that much, or nearly as much as they wished; the political obstacles, in the 1980s, were just too great.

For these brief four years, however, between the Republican takeover of the Senate in 2002 under President Bush and the recent return of Congress to Democratic control, the scalpel has become a machete. We’ve been able to witness a natural experiment: What would have happened if Goldwater and Reagan had been able to get their way?

Surveying the results, what once looked to me like principle now looks to me now like mania. Conservatism has been killing Americans. The recent food safety crisis is only one case study.

I agree, but what shocked me this mea culpa by Perlstein:

I’ve been studying the conservative turn in American politics pretty much fulltime since 1997. I never was a conservative. But I admired conservatives. The people then running the Democratic Party just did not seem to me strong people. They were “triangulators”–splitting every difference, selling out any principle, in the ever-illusive quest to divine the American people’s fickle beliefs at that particular moment. They did not lead. They followed–Chamberlains, not Churchills.

I wrote a book that came out in 2001 about the conservatives who took over the Republican Party in the early 1960s. Whatever my differences with them ideologically, I didn’t write a single negative word about the conservative movement for nearly seven years. Until then, I considered them honorable adversaries. They inspired me. They took risks for a cause. They were principled. They were endlessly determined.

As Nietsche put it, “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.” The reason I support regulation, and the taxes needed to support it, isn’t some divinely inspired ideology. It’s because it works. It’s indicative of what other, very smart people did to the conservatives: they turned them into a foil and projected their own beliefs onto various conservatives, rather than accepting them at their word. What did he think the implications of “I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient for I mean to reduce its size” would be? He’s not the only one. Much, if not most of the mainstream pundit class, did the same, along with some other very smart progressives, such as Glenn Greenwald, who once wrote in the preface of How Would a Patriot Act:

I never voted for George W. Bush–or for any of his political opponents.

I believed that voting was not particularly important. Our country, it seemed to me, was essentially on the right track.Whether Democrats or Republicans held the White House or the majorities in Congress made only the most marginal difference. I held views on some matters that could be defined as conservative, views on others that seemed liberal. But I firmly believed that our democratic system of government was sufficiently insulated from any real abuse, by our Constitution and by the checks and balances afforded by having three separate but equal branches of government.

My primary political belief was that both parties were plagued by extremists who were equally dangerous and destructive, but that as long as neither extreme acquired real political power, our system would function smoothly and more or less tolerably. For that reason, although I always paid attention to political debates, I was never sufficiently moved to become engaged in the electoral process.

Maybe it’s that I grew up in Virginia, and I witnessed first hand what ‘honorable’ conservatives actually did. My all time favorite was when then-governor George “Macacawitz” Allen tried to pass legislation that cut all state funding for Meals-on-Wheels (a program that brings food to elderly shut-ins). Watching Ollie North run for senate too also scared the stuffing out of me.

Moral of the story: re-read everything Molly Ivins ever wrote about the Texas Republicans, and then pay attention to what they do, not what they say, just like Pulitzer Prize winner Charlie Savage did.

We don’t want to have to relearn this lesson again in twenty years.

Comments

  1. #1 Kevin
    April 20, 2007

    “In fact, the system is so bad, that it took an internal investigation by the offending company for PR reasons to expose how the contamination took place.”

    This is a sign of the system working in a free market. To protect one’s reputation or to control damage to it, it is good business practice to investigate one’s foul ups and publicize the problems and what is being done to fix them.

    “The reason I support regulation, and the taxes needed to support it, isn’t some divinely inspired ideology. It’s because it works.”

    What is your evidence for this claim? Having experienced preventative safety inspections by various state and local authorities, initial building safety inspections, etc., I have seen little evidence that inspectors, in general, tend to be competent. You just cited a 12% drop in employees resulted in a 47% drop in inspections. That doesn’t spell ‘efficiency’ to me.

    “For these brief four years, however, between the Republican takeover of the Senate in 2002 under President Bush and the recent return of Congress to Democratic control, the scalpel has become a machete. We’ve been able to witness a natural experiment: What would have happened if Goldwater and Reagan had been able to get their way?

    Surveying the results, what once looked to me like principle now looks to me now like mania. Conservatism has been killing Americans. The recent food safety crisis is only one case study.”

    So the US has never had any crises with food safety under a democratically controlled legislature or executive?

    “Maybe it’s that I grew up in Virginia, and I witnessed first hand what ‘honorable’ conservatives actually did. My all time favorite was when then-governor George “Macacawitz” Allen tried to pass legislation that cut all state funding for Meals-on-Wheels (a program that brings food to elderly shut-ins).”

    Was it efficient? Did it accomplish its goals? Were there private mechanisms that would serve as well? I am not sure I see the dishonor in trying to end welfare. Please elaborate.

  2. #2 Mike the Mad Biologist
    April 20, 2007

    Kevin,

    It’s simple. You should catch the contamination before people start dying. Catching afterwards is a failure. The number of incidents, and food-borne illness (after adjusting for population) is increasing, so, yes, the current administration is responsible.

  3. #3 C. Diane
    April 20, 2007

    Streamlining government would by definition decrease its size. Sheesh…

  4. #4 Joshua
    April 20, 2007

    You just cited a 12% drop in employees resulted in a 47% drop in inspections. That doesn’t spell ‘efficiency’ to me.

    What? That only makes any sense whatsoever if you assume that “more inspections” means “less efficiency”. Surely, the ideal is that we would be able to use a small number of laser-targeted on only the plants that actually have problems.

    But how are we supposed to figure out which plants need the laser-targeted inspections? How are we supposed to know anything at all without checking? Trusting that the companies will just tell the FDA that their stock might be contaminated and could you please come over and stop the assembly lines to give everything a thorough looking-over and maybe slap a fine on us afterwards?

    Sounds like a faith-based approach to food inspection to me. Ask the thousands of people who lost their pets to contaminated wheat gluten how well that worked out for them.

  5. #5 Kevin
    April 21, 2007

    Mike,

    What data are you referencing in concluding food contamination is on the uptick? Also, of course one would want to stop contamination before it starts. I thought that was the reason for the court system. Short of making someone afraid of consequences of wrong behavior, there is not ever any way to really stop someone from wrongdoing before they start it. Yearly inspections certainly aren’t going to do the trick.

  6. #6 Kevin
    April 21, 2007

    Joshua,

    Why is a 12% drop in employees responsible for almost halving inspections? Were so few employees involved in inspections vs. administrative positions? Apparently so. This is why their business model doesn’t look like a paradigm of efficieny to me.

    And as an owner of a pet affected by the tainted food allow me to rebut your understanding of a self-interested view. In fact, in the status quo with mandated federal inspections, this unfortunate event still occurred. Federal guidelines failed to solve for this problem.

    The only thing that is going to stop it from happening again is going to be a bunch of very vigorous lawsuits damaging or bankrupting the company so it stands as a warning to others. Fear is what changes behavior. I will never again buy any food related to Menu foods and am pursuing damages right now. This screw up is not going to help their bottom line.

  7. #7 Mike the Mad Biologist
    April 21, 2007

    Kevin,

    as to the 12%, I’ve posted about that in the context of public health. All of these organizations need support staff and infrastructure, particularly if there is laboratory work. As to the contamination rates, the FDA has several programs that examine this. Go look them up.

  8. #8 Kevin
    April 21, 2007

    Mike,

    Nothing in your linked article disproves my thesis; I think it actually supports it. Management/office staff should be cut in such an instance. That’s why I said the numbers revealed inefficiency. That the final 12% of funding they receive results in a 47% drop in investigating means their administrative costs are massive in comparison to the work they exist to perform.

  9. #9 Troublesome Frog
    April 21, 2007

    Short of making someone afraid of consequences of wrong behavior, there is not ever any way to really stop someone from wrongdoing before they start it. Yearly inspections certainly aren’t going to do the trick.

    Let’s say I’m a food producer. If I can get away with unsafe procedures that have a 10% chance of causing a fatal contamination in 1 year, I can get away with it for an average of 5 years before anybody is the wiser. The only way to keep me from doing it is to raise the penalty so it’s not profitable to do so and wait for somebody to die or to inspect my operation to catch me doing it before my negligence kills somebody. No, it won’t catch 100% of the cases, but neither do seat belts.

  10. #10 erotik shop
    September 10, 2008

    thanks fine

  11. #11 hikaye
    October 2, 2008

    very good.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.