The lingering consequences of e coli conservatism

THE LINGERING CONSEQUENCES OF E COLI CONSERVATISM…. You’ve likely heard about the egg recall that’s currently underway, in the wake of at least 1,300 salmonella-related illnesses spanning 22 states over the summer. The Washington Post noted this week that the outbreak highlights the need to fix “the holes in the country’s food safety net.”

As we learn more about the story, we see that the salmonella problems stem from an uninspected producer in Iowa, with a record of health, safety, labor, and other violations that go back 20 years. Democrats in Washington are nearing approval of a new food-safety bill, but Jonathan Cohn takes a closer look this morning at pending egg regulations, which have been lingering for quite a while.

Cohn notes that the “saga of these standards seems like a case study in how conservative politics and conservative politicians have weakened federal regulation, exposing the public to greater health risks.”

It begins … with the administration of Ronald Reagan. Convinced that excessive regulation was stifling American innovation and imposing unnecessary costs on the public, Reagan’s team changed the way government makes rules.

Prior to the 1980s, agencies like the FDA had authority to finalize regulations on their own. Reagan changed that, forcing agencies to submit all regulations to the Office of Management and Budget, which cast a more skeptical eye on anything that would require the government or business to spend more money. The regulatory process slowed down and, in many cases, the people in charge of it became more skittish.

Clinton didn’t share Reagan’s antipathy to regulation. Prodded by consumer advocates and more liberal Democrats, his administration announced its intention to impose new safety requirements on the egg industry. But that happened in 1999, a year before Clinton left office. When George W. Bush succeeded him, the administration’s posture reverted to its 1980s version.

Like Reagan, Bush was skeptical of government interference in the market. And, like Reagan, he appointed officials sympathetic to businesses that wanted to avoid the cost of complying with new federal rules. It was not until 2004, five years after Clinton had proposed the new egg rules, that the Bush Administration issued actual regulatory language. And by 2009, when Bush left office, the administration still had not finalized the rule.

William Hubbard, who was associate FDA commissioner from 1991 until 2005, told Cohn the Bush White House simply wouldn’t let the FDA act, because Bush’s team was “very hostile to regulation.”

This isn’t quite new — we’ve seen related outbreaks a little too often in recent years, and much of it stems from insufficient government safeguards. Relevant companies are doing what the industry is expected to do — exploiting loopholes to cut corners and save costs — but if policymakers simply let the free market guide the food-safety process, the results include the salmonella illnesses we’re seeing now.

The answer, then, is a political one — federal officials need to intervene to do what American consumers cannot do for themselves, in this case, imposing stricter safety regulations. For all the Republican hatred of government regulation — “I don’t want Obama’s hands in my eggs!” — recent developments should turn the anti-government crusade on its head.

A few years ago, Rick Perlstein coined the phrase “E. Coli Conservatism.” The importance of rejecting that ideology keeps getting stronger.