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Keep Government’s Hands Off Our Food? Next Time You Read about an Outbreak of Salmonella or E. coli, Thank Jack Kingston (R-GA)

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Manic House Republicans voted last Thursday to de-fund the implementation of a landmark law, passed just a few months ago, to strengthen Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) authority to police tainted food. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), chairman of the House subcommittee that wrote the agriculture appropriations bill, announced on the House floor that the cuts were justified because the nation’s food supply was “99.99 percent safe.” 

“Do we believe that McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Safeway and Kraft Food and any brand name that you think of, that these people aren’t concerned about food safety?,” Kingston said. “The food supply in America is very safe because the private sector self-polices, because they have the highest motivation. They don’t want to be sued, they don’t want to go broke.  They want their customers to be healthy and happy.”

Sadly for Kingston, history’s not on his side. And in his case, it’s some fairly local history. In the fall of 2008, a salmonella outbreak in the United States claimed at least nine lives and made about 660 people sick. After considerable sleuthing, scientists traced the outbreak back to a peanut processing plant about 100 miles from Kingston’s congressional district. It turned out that the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) had deliberately shipped peanut paste from its Blakely, Georgia, plant that it knew had been found in tests to have salmonella. The paste was used in hundreds of products made by other food manufacturers. When the FBI and FDA investigators converged on the plant, they found a slew of outright safety violations including a leaking roof, mold growing on ceilings and walls, rodent infestation, filthy nut processing receptacles, and feathers and feces in the air filtration system. The outbreak cost the peanut industry alone more than $1 billion, more than enough to provide the $995 million that President Obama requested to fund the FDA’s food safety initiatives for the next fiscal year.

As for the proposition that Fortune 100 companies care about food safety, Kingston is right, but the point is irrelevant.  Companies like Kellogg and Nestlé do their best to protect themselves from unscrupulous processors, hiring third-party inspectors to audit their suppliers. But the Georgia plant had received a “superior” rating from a private audit firm working on behalf of Kellogg–American Institute of Baking International (AIB)–barely a year before the outbreak, although a second auditing team hired by Nestlé had turned in such a damning report that the company stopped buying PCA products. So much for self-regulation.

Little wonder, then, that the Grocery Manufacturers of America and most other industry groups supported passage of the bill, which imposed fees on regulated entities to help pay for regulatory efforts in order to reduce the expense of the system for taxpayers. So Representative Kingston is not even carrying the food industry’s water when he presses to slash funding for the FDA. More likely it’s just anti-government, anti-regulatory reflex – a reflex so strong it’s able to overcome reason, history and experience.   

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