‘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.