Fear of Eating

Published on
by
The New York Times

Fear of Eating

by
Paul Krugman

Yesterday I did something risky: I ate a salad.

These are anxious days at the lunch table. For all you know, there may be E. coli on your spinach, salmonella in your peanut butter and melamine in your pet's food and, because it was in the feed, in your chicken sandwich.

Who's responsible for the new fear of eating? Some blame globalization; some blame food-producing corporations; some blame the Bush administration. But I blame Milton Friedman.

Now, those who blame globalization do have a point. U.S. officials can't inspect overseas food-processing plants without the permission of foreign governments — and since the Food and Drug Administration has limited funds and manpower, it can inspect only a small percentage of imports. This leaves American consumers effectively dependent on the quality of foreign food-safety enforcement. And that's not a healthy place to be, especially when it comes to imports from China, where the state of food safety is roughly what it was in this country before the Progressive movement.

The Washington Post, reviewing F.D.A. documents, found that last month the agency detained shipments from China that included dried apples treated with carcinogenic chemicals and seafood "coated with putrefying bacteria." You can be sure that a lot of similarly unsafe and disgusting food ends up in American stomachs.

Those who blame corporations also have a point. In 2005, the F.D.A. suspected that peanut butter produced by ConAgra, which sells the product under multiple brand names, might be contaminated with salmonella. According to The New York Times, "when agency inspectors went to the plant that made the peanut butter, the company acknowledged it had destroyed some product but declined to say why," and refused to let the inspectors examine its records without a written authorization.

According to the company, the agency never followed through. This brings us to our third villain, the Bush administration.

Without question, America's food safety system has degenerated over the past six years. We don't know how many times concerns raised by F.D.A. employees were ignored or soft-pedaled by their superiors. What we do know is that since 2001 the F.D.A. has introduced no significant new food safety regulations except those mandated by Congress.

This isn't simply a matter of caving in to industry pressure. The Bush administration won't issue food safety regulations even when the private sector wants them. The president of the United Fresh Produce Association says that the industry's problems "can't be solved without strong mandatory federal regulations": without such regulations, scrupulous growers and processors risk being undercut by competitors more willing to cut corners on food safety. Yet the administration refuses to do more than issue nonbinding guidelines.

Why would the administration refuse to regulate an industry that actually wants to be regulated? Officials may fear that they would create a precedent for public-interest regulation of other industries. But they are also influenced by an ideology that says business should never be regulated, no matter what.

The economic case for having the government enforce rules on food safety seems overwhelming. Consumers have no way of knowing whether the food they eat is contaminated, and in this case what you don't know can hurt or even kill you. But there are some people who refuse to accept that case, because it's ideologically inconvenient.

That's why I blame the food safety crisis on Milton Friedman, who called for the abolition of both the food and the drug sides of the F.D.A. What would protect the public from dangerous or ineffective drugs? "It's in the self-interest of pharmaceutical companies not to have these bad things," he insisted in a 1999 interview. He would presumably have applied the same logic to food safety (as he did to airline safety): regardless of circumstances, you can always trust the private sector to police itself.

O.K., I'm not saying that Mr. Friedman directly caused tainted spinach and poisonous peanut butter. But he did help to make our food less safe, by legitimizing what the historian Rick Perlstein calls "E. coli conservatives": ideologues who won't accept even the most compelling case for government regulation.

Earlier this month the administration named, you guessed it, a "food safety czar." But the food safety crisis isn't caused by the arrangement of the boxes on the organization chart. It's caused by the dominance within our government of a literally sickening ideology.

Paul Krugman is Professor of Economics at Princeton University and a regular New York Times columnist. His most recent book is The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century.

© 2007 The New York Times

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