According to the government-is-unnecessary crowd, the market gives industry all the motivation it needs to police itself. Even without government inspectors, they claim, airlines wouldn’t cut corners on maintenance, because planes falling out of the sky would look really bad for them. In the long run it would hurt profits, so they just wouldn’t do it. Even if nobody was looking. Not even a little bit, in a pinch.
We could have endless what-if arguments about this theory, but we don’t have to, because (unknown to most of the public) we’ve been running an experiment on ourselves for many years now, as the government slowly retreats from food inspection.
This week, Bloomberg News took a look at how it’s going. Not so well, apparently.
Food-borne illness kills about 3,000 Americans a year, which you might think would be a big deal politically, given that most voters eat and don’t want to die. But as I’ve observed before, eaters don’t think of themselves as a special-interest group, so they don’t have a national organization that hires lobbyists and makes campaign contributions. Food companies, though, do all that stuff. So the system works better for them than for us.
One way it works for them is that food inspection is mostly privatized.
In 2011, the FDA inspected 6 percent of domestic food producers and just 0.4 percent of importers.
The rest? Well, they sort of inspect themselves.
The food industry hires for-profit inspection companies — known as third-party auditors — who aren’t required by law to meet any federal standards and have no government supervision. … The private inspectors that companies select often check only those areas their clients ask them to review.
In some cases, for-hire auditors have financial ties to executives at companies they’re reviewing. AIB International Inc., a Manhattan, Kansas, auditor that awarded top marks to producers that sold toxic food, has had board members who are top managers at companies that are clients.
… “There’s a fundamental conflict,” says David Kessler, a lawyer and physician who was FDA commissioner from 1990 to 1997. “We all know about third-party audit conflicts. We’ve seen it play out in the financial world. You can’t be tied to your auditors. There has to be independence.”
As with most privatization schemes, the problem is that even honest for-profit auditors do not have a broad protect-the-public sense of mission. At best, contractors fulfill their contracts. They don’t take a step back and say, “Wait a minute, people could die from this.” (Another egregious example is privatized juvenile detention facilities. The mission “care for these kids so that they don’t become hardened criminals” is difficult to express in an enforceable contract.)
In the food industry, it works out like this:
Auditors evaluate their clients using standards selected by the companies that pay them, says Mansour Samadpour, owner of IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group in Lake Forest Park, Washington, which does testing for the FDA. The auditors sometimes follow a checklist that the company they’re inspecting has helped write.
“If you have a program for adding rat poison to a food, the auditor will ask, ‘Did you add as much as you intended?”’ Samadpour says. “Most won’t ask, ‘Why the hell are we adding poison?”’
This business-can-inspect-itself stuff sounds so Republican. Surely things changed when the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006. Right? Well, this is one of those cases where industry owns the Republicans, but when that’s not enough they can rent some Democrats too.
The FDA is trying, so far without success, to wrest back control of food inspection from the industry. In 2008, the agency estimated that it would need another $3 billion — quadrupling its $1 billion annual budget for food safety — to conduct inspections on imported and domestic food, the FDA’s former food safety chief David Acheson says.
Instead, the food industry lobbied for, and won, enactment of a law in January 2011 that expanded the role of auditors — and foreign governments — in vetting producers and distributors of food bound for the U.S.
I’ve skimmed the ideas out of the Bloomberg article, but the human-interest stories — of people who died because they foolishly ate cantaloupes or something — are horrifying. Don’t put yourself through it (unless you’re one of those radical pro-eater activists).