FDA Does Not Need More Power, It Needs Less Complexity

Have you ever become ill because of eating tainted food? It is likely that you have. Of course, many times when we become ill from tainted food, we are not violently ill, nor do we require hospitalization, so chance are good that you’ve been affected by food more often then you can recall.

However, in our current political thinking, it does not matter that the risk of damage/injury from tainted food is quite small in reference to the risk of expanded the bureaucracy once again, as Tom Coburn notes below:

America has the safest food supply in the world, and it has never been safer. The rates of food-borne illness have been declining for more than a decade. Still, tragic outbreaks do occur and government can take common-sense steps to make our food supply even safer.

Unfortunately, highly publicized events such as last summer’s egg salmonella scare often have the opposite effect. Politicians tend to overreact to a crisis and impose new and invasive regulations. Soon, the law of diminishing returns takes effect with billions in extra spending having little impact, or even a negative impact.

The so-called FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, which the Senate will vote on after Thanksgiving, only expands a disjointed, duplicative and ineffective food safety bureaucracy. The Government Accountability Office has consistently called this bureaucracy “high risk due to (its) greater vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement.”

The Senate has now passed this bill. In keeping with a number of other bills which have been recently passed, it leaves the specifics of enforcement and regulation up to the government agency–in this case the FDA:

Ques­tion from GovTrack.​us Users: Will this bill pre­vent me from hav­ing a home gar­den, shar­ing pro­duce with my friends, or dis­rupt in any way my local farmer’s mar­ket?

Re­itzig: What Sen­ate bill S. 510 does it is cre­ates statu­to­ry au­thor­i­ty for the FDA to come up with reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing all as­pects of food pro­duc­tion and pro­cess­ing. So whether or not it will af­fect a home gar­den or a farmer’s mar­ket, we prob­a­bly won’t see any­thing im­me­di­ate­ly af­fect­ing those, but once they come up with the reg­u­la­tions and start en­forc­ing we could see a dis­rup­tion in any­thing, any­thing from a farmer’s mar­ket to a child’s lemon­ade stand.

Be­cause noth­ing is ex­plic­it­ly ex­empt­ed, so they are all im­plic­it­ly in­clud­ed. So the reg­u­la­tions could very eas­i­ly in­clude reg­u­la­tions such that they im­pose over­bur­den­some re­stric­tions on farm­ers going to mar­ket.

Gov­Track In­sid­er: But sure­ly it wasn’t the in­tent of the law­mak­ers to dis­rupt gar­dens or lemon­ade stands.

Re­itzig: Well I think the in­tent of the leg­is­la­tion is to give much broad­er au­thor­i­ty to the FDA, and then when you look at the lan­guage of the bill, when it gives the au­thor­i­ty to the FDA to act on “rea­son to be­lieve”, that’s giv­ing a lot of power, a lot of con­trol, to one per­son.

An ex­am­ple of that is there is a thriv­ing and boom­ing fresh milk move­ment, peo­ple who want fresh milk di­rect­ly from farm­ers they know and trust. Well the FDA, CDC, and other or­ga­ni­za­tions have clear­ly said they don’t think any­body should drink fresh milk. If you go by that, they would have rea­son to be­lieve fresh milk might make some­body sick, and on that basis they could just shut down every fresh milk farmer, ev­ery­body who is sup­ply­ing fresh milk to a con­sumer be­cause they have that rea­son to be­lieve. Even if the in­tent is not ex­plic­it­ly stat­ed as con­trol over all farms, that is what is this leg­is­la­tion and they can use that to im­pose their world view on ev­ery­one. [emphasis mine]

Have I mentioned that I distrust the concentration of power?

When attempts to do away with all risk in a given system–which seems to be what many of our elected folks think is their job–one has done away with all related freedoms.

That alone is basis for the House of Representative to find “reason to believe” that this bill should never be voted into law.

UPDATE 12:25

Here’s a review of a book on the history of the FDA, in case you are wondering a bit about what its been involved in and responsible for over the last 104 years.

6 thoughts on “FDA Does Not Need More Power, It Needs Less Complexity

  1. This is one area that the anti-big government argument falls flat for me. Food safety is one area that I think we should have big government and the conservative crusade against all big government is dangerous in this case. So I see this Food Safety Bill has a great thing for the country.

    1. Haggs,

      I didn’t know there were any areas where the anti-big government argument resonated for you. Glad to hear that there is hope.

      If you would look at the details of the bill, you might find that it does not address food safety so much as it ensures that the FDA gets its hands into everything which has to do with food–whether there is really any safety issue or not. If people are willing to take certain risks with reference to their food (such as the one regarding un-pasteurized milk) then the government has no business telling people that the risk is not acceptable.

      You’ll note that I did not state that we should do away with the FDA, but that it should be made simpler.

      1. Whoa, don’t get ahead of yourself. 🙂 Anti-big government arguments don’t “resonate” with me in the way you’re probably hoping they would. I reject the ideas that government should be either small or big. Instead I want smart government. So I do think the federal government should be smartly regulating the private sector. I think our government has a duty to protect its citizens from harmful things like salmonella outbreaks or corporations getting around safety rules to save money.

        The FDA is one area of our government where I want them to have all the power they need to make sure our food is safe for us to eat. So when you say “it ensures the FDA gets its hands into everything which has to do with food” my response is “Good!” They should be regulating everything food-related like egg producers and other companies to make sure those products are safe. They should be studying the health risks of un-pasteurized milk and letting us know what those risks are. They should be smart about it, though. If the risks are not threatening then they should let the public choose whether or not they want to consume it (but they should provide info to help us make that choice). And I don’t like stupid regulations like outright bans on fast food or happy meal toys.

        So if a case can be made that the FDA can be simplified while also retaining enough power to make sure our food is safe to consume, I’d certainly listen to it. But if a simplified FDA means continued salmonella outbreaks like we’ve been having, then I believe it needs to be more complex and powerful.

        1. Oh well, I was able to be hopeful for a little bit.

          My thought is that the FDA, even if it were as close to omnipotent as a human agency could get, would be unable to stop salmonella, etc. I see the power of any agency as being tied to the principle of diminishing returns. After a certain point, the loss of freedom involved in further diminishing my risk is not worth it.

          I would rather err on the side of freedom than on the side of safety. It is rather obvious that you are tacking from the other direction. What a lovely reason to have more rules at a state level so you and I could pick the state that most closely conforms to our comfort level with regard to freedom and risk.

          1. Sorry, Michael, but that state’s rights line won’t work since food produced in one state doesn’t just stay in that state. For nation-wide food producers, we need strong federal regulations and federal inspectors. We can’t have it where one state has lax safety regulations because that doesn’t solve the problem… and it might make it worse because food producers will move to that state.

            I agree with you that the FDA will never be able to prevent all outbreaks, but I don’t see that as a reason that we shouldn’t try to make food production as safe as we possibly can. This is not a freedom issue, unless you want companies free to ignore safety.

          2. Haggs,

            States should be free to set their own rules for food safety–and many do already. It is in each state’s interest to ensure that they had sufficiently stringent processes that the neighboring states didn’t capture their commerce, among other things.

            Central authority is primarily interested in furthering and expanding its power. It is the nature of such entities since time immemorial. It is most definitely a freedom issue.

            I, for one, am quite willing to accept food risk and believe that I am better suited to make choices about food, preparation, etc than a bureaucrat that will never actually either have to procure or eat the food in question.

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