Last month, the House got around to updating food safety laws that have been in effect since 1938. The bill, which the Senate will take up in the fall, gives the Food and Drug Administration substantial new inspection powers and beefs up funding for food safety research. It also adds a new $500 fee per facility for anyone involved in the food business. But will 159 pages of shiny, new 2009 rules actually make our food safer than the old-timey 1938 laws did?
When the bill passed the House, its author, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), crowed to The Washington Post: "This will fundamentally change the way in which we ensure the safety of our food supply." This is a very D.C. thing to get excited about. Bureaucratic change! Well, change in the FDA bureaucracy, anyway. The numerous additional rule makers and germ counters at the 15 other federal agencies also tasked with food supply supervision will continue with business as usual, unaffected by the new legislation.
Dingell has been riding the food safety hobbyhorse for more than 20 years, but he finally got some traction after the recent tainted peanut butter scandal, which probably scared peanut butter manufacturers a heck of a lot more than it did Dingell. Consider the speed of the recall (a few weeks) versus the speed of the new law (a couple of years).
Under the new rules, the power to issue recalls has been removed from the companies themselves and placed into the hands of a newly flush FDA-implementation of the new rules will cost federal taxpayers an additional $2.2 billion. A recall can be appallingly costly for a company, both in dollars and in reputation. But feeding a bunch of Americans unsafe food can be costlier still when the lawsuits start to stack up. (Dingell's bill exempts small producers from most of the new requirements, so this entire discussion is about the safety of the food churned out by the big boys.)
Recall math is tricky. We're not necessarily talking about the dreaded case of a company "putting a price on human life"—though that can and does happen in business and in government all of the time.
Instead, sometimes the causes of a case or two of food-borne illness simply aren't immediately clear: Did someone leave a single case of spinach with a tiny puncture too close to a Port-a-Potty, or is there something seriously wrong with the green's growth and distribution system? A nerve-racking wait-and-see period follows the first case or two of food poisoning as bean makers' bean counters try to figure out what's going on.
Companies have lawyers and accountants who do this math for them, and the FDA will too. But the FDA's formulas (and its political appointees) will put an awful lot more emphasis on the CYA variable, and a lot less on costs incurred by the companies. The result will be more frequent recalls for more marginal cases. That means more panic all around, in a country already obsessed with food safety-a self-perpetuating cycle. We may not wind up safer, just more worried.
Anyone who thinks corporate and public interests always match up is full of, well, tainted peanut butter. But the case of food safety does offer a closer-than-average alignment. A couple of high-profile incidents aside, this is why laws from the misty past were still working surprisingly well—news about food travels quickly in the era of panicky e-mail forwards and panicky-er cable television, and filing a class action lawsuit is easy as Hostess Cherry Pie. People don't want to get sick for personal reasons and food companies really don't want to make them sick for fiscal reasons. If and when a bunch of customers start feeling bilious, the CEO doesn't need an FDA food safety officer around to inform him that he is in deep, deep peanut butter.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at Zester Daily.