When the Food Industry Inspects Itself

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).

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Comments

  • merrichristine  On October 16, 2012 at 7:00 am

    Speaking of FDA inspections and the general dodginess of the food industry, you might be interested in checking out Jonathan Safran Foer’s non-fiction book Eating Animals. It explores the health hazards of the meat industry (and it’s chock full of them) and how it resists public attention or change. He does make the case for vegetarianism in health, ecological and scientific respects – it’s the underlying theme of the book, but all in all it was very eye opening!

    With regards to your section on the rise of the Nones – non religiously affiliated Gen Y-ers, I actually also recently wrote a personal post attempting to understand why this might be the case.. in case you might be interested to take the time to read it, I’ve included the link here.
    http://thehummingplace.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/why-young-people-dont-need-god/

    • weeklysift  On October 19, 2012 at 7:40 am

      Thanks for that link. You might be interested in my religious blog “Free and Responsible Search” at http://www.freeandresponsible.blogspot.com.

      I think too little weight is given to St. Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2:8 that faith “is a gift of God.” Whether you believe in God or not, what Paul is pointing to is the pre-rational process that prepares (or doesn’t prepare) a person to accept religious arguments. That’s the part that is failing these days.

      Here’s what I mean: When I hear a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon, my immediate instinctive reaction is “Are you serious?” Not fear, not doubt, not anger — just bewilderment. I can’t even really try the idea on for size, much less consider it as a possible belief system for myself.

      Now, I’m 50-something, so my reactions aren’t evidence about Gen Y. But I imagine this is the trend that is spreading in the younger generations.

      • merrichristine  On October 19, 2012 at 11:36 am

        Faith is a gift of God indeed.. perhaps undying religious faith is slowly deteriorating because the institutions priming us for this ‘pre-rational process’ such as family, schooling, community are suffering a similar fate. Speaking at a general level, I think this crisis of faith largely stems from a deepening mistrust of the system that has been brewing for a long time, maybe stemming from deregulation and accountability, and further confirmed by plurality of opinion and evidence given to us by new media.
        I find it disheartening that cynicism is the new ‘faith’ these days particularly amongst younger generations, given we even care about topics of public importance at all.

      • weeklysift  On October 20, 2012 at 7:37 am

        I think there is secular idealism. I think I have it sometimes, and it shows up in this blog occasionally. So I don’t believe traditional religion and cynicism are the only choices.

        But I agree that the traditional religious messages aren’t geared for a multi-cultural world, where there isn’t just plurality of opinion, there’s plurality of authority and authenticity. The idea that Buddhism comes from the Devil, say, just rings false when you have access to the great Buddhist texts and know people whose lives get meaning and structure from Buddhism.

        I think the Information Age demands less sweeping claims. Not that We go to Heaven and They go to Hell, but something more like: Of all the ways you can seek meaning and purpose in life ours works really well.

        Cynicism is a natural reaction to sweeping claims that don’t ring true in the world. I have hope that a humbler faith, one that doesn’t need to build an information bubble to shield itself from new evidence and ideas, can still inspire.

  • Anonymous  On October 16, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    2 issues: 1st, although I am sure you have accurately reflected FDA trends you have not mentioned what states are doing to regulate food. I would argue that many states are picking up this slack (i.e., the movement to label GMO foods in different states). 2nd, You cite another piece of yours from May where you criticize the subsidy structure of federal food policy. This seems in-congruent (on face) with your argument here as in one aspect you are arguing for government regulation and on another, for market freedom.

    • weeklysift  On October 19, 2012 at 7:23 am

      The point of the link was to a larger explanation of the idea that food-eaters don’t think of themselves as a special-interest group. That previous article was not an argument against government regulation in general; it was an argument against a pro-corporate government policy with regard to food.

  • schlampen  On October 23, 2012 at 4:46 am

    You made some good points there. I checked on the web to
    learn more about the issue and found most individuals will go along
    with your views on this web site.

  • Haruka  On January 31, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    You really make it seem so easy with your preointatesn but I find this topic to be actually something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and extremely broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

Trackbacks

  • By The Retro Campaign « The Weekly Sift on October 15, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    […] more accurately, Bloomberg News did. “When the Food Industry Inspects Itself” is a short note that overgrew its space. (It’s still a lot shorter than the original […]

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