Does the Debt Deal Make You Sick?

Sinking stock markets are not the only sign that the eleventh-hour debt ceiling deal was the wrong solution to the wrong problem.

The announcement by Cargill that it is recalling an astounding 36 million pounds of salmonella-tainted ground turkey products is a perfect symbol of the hazards of shrinking government.

During the debt ceiling debate, Democrats frequently portrayed themselves as defenders of social insurance programs such as Medicare and Social Security. That’s all well and good, but their willingness to go along with substantial cuts to the budgets of federal agencies can also have serious consequences.

Among those agencies are the Food and Drug Administration, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the Department of Agriculture. FSIS is responsible for protecting the public from illness caused by tainted meat, poultry and egg products. FDA oversees safety issues for other food groups.

These agencies should be sacred cows, so to speak, but many of the anti-government yahoos now in Congress seem to view food safety regulations as an encroachment on the free market and personal liberty. Even before the new debt deal, this function was being targeted.

Last year, in the wake of incidents involving widespread contamination of eggs, peanut butter and spinach, Congress tightened food safety regulation and gave more authority to the FDA. The agency was finally given the power to issue mandatory recalls rather than depending on producers to withdraw dangerous products voluntarily. As soon as the law passed, rightwingers were moving to undermine it.

In December, Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, then the ranking member and now the chair of the appropriations committee overseeing the FDA, said that the number of food-borne illnesses in the country did not justify the cost of the new law. Kingston, whose website bio brags that he has “fought to lower taxes, balance the budget, and reduce government interference in our lives,” criticized the legislation as “overreach” and vowed to cut food safety spending to make it difficult to implement the new rules.

Kingston and his colleagues made good on that threat in June, when the Republican majority in the House voted to cut $87 million from the FDA budget and $35 million from FSIS.

The rightwing effort to eviscerate federal food regulation is justified with the assumption that corporate food producers are willing and able to monitor themselves. This assumption perseveres despite the dismal track record of the industry.

Take Cargill. Its current turkey problem is far from an anomaly for the company. Over the past decade or so, it has been involved in a series of recalls in its meat and poultry operations such as the following:

  • August 2010: recalled 8,500 pounds of ground beef after an outbreak of a rare strain of E.coli bacteria was traced to a company plant in Pennsylvania.
  • December 2009: subsidiary Beef Packers Inc. recalled 22,000 pounds of ground beef after an investigation of salmonella was traced to a company distribution center in Arizona.
  • October 2009: recalled 5,500 pounds of beef tongues because the tonsils may not have been completely removed, leaving in tissue that raises the risk of “mad cow” disease.
  • November 2007: recalled more than 1 million pounds of ground beef suspected of being tainted with E.coli.
  • April 2004: subsidiary Excel recalled 45,000 pounds of ground beef suspected of being tainted with E.coli.
  • October 2002: recalled 2.8 million pounds of ground beef suspected of being tainted with E.coli.
  • December 2000: recalled more than 16 million pounds of packaged poultry linked to an outbreak of listeria.

And this is the dismal record of an industry leader with more than $100 billion in annual revenues, not a fly-by-night operator without the resources to maintain decent standards in its operations.

Rep. Kingston likes to declare that the U.S. food supply is “99.99 percent safe.” That apparently fabricated figure does not change the fact that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 48 million Americans are sickened by tainted food each year, of whom 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

Debates over the proper levels of federal spending and regulation are typically framed in abstractions, but they can become a matter of survival. When Patrick Henry said “give me liberty or give me death,” I doubt he meant he would give his life for the right of a giant corporation to sell contaminated food without government interference.

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