It’s rather ironic that the activists who routinely lament government’s failure to protect public health are among the most vociferous proponents of expanding government powers. This month’s massive egg recall, involving more than 500 million eggs from two Iowa farms, is but the latest example.
The recall, initiated August 13, was prompted by a dramatic spike in cases of salmonella enteritidis documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From the time the news broke, blame for the salmonella outbreak has been widely attributed to “deregulation,” with a variety of consumer groups demanding stricter government oversight of the food industry in general and shell eggs in particular.
In fact, there’s been no repeal of regulation or revocation of government authority related in any way to shell eggs in recent years. Regulation has actually increased. Under the Egg Products Inspection Act, the Department of Agriculture (DOA) regulates egg processing, egg grading, and on-farm reduction of salmonella. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meanwhile, also has jurisdiction over the safety of shell eggs—including regulatory powers to limit the spread of communicable disease such as salmonella.
Nor is it true that regulatory agencies have been hobbled by budget cuts, as is often claimed by advocates of regulatory escalation. According to researchers Susan Dudley and Melinda Warren, in their recent report A Decade of Growth in the Regulators’ Budget, outlays for the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service increased 196 percent (in real terms) between 1980 and 2011 and a whopping 1,026 percent for the FDA. Federal regulatory budgets in general have grown 75.5 percent (in real terms) between 2000 and 2010.
That’s not to say existing food safety regulations are rational or prudently administered. There’s plenty of evidence that the regulatory authority is clumsily divided among some 15 agencies. But that’s hardly a result of deregulation. And judging by the recent actions of some food regulators, there’s a case to be made that those responsible for egg safety have too much on their regulatory plate.
The FDA, for example, has been inspecting dog food production facilities; supervising the posting of calorie counts on vending machines, cracking down on the nutrition claims on Cheerios boxes, preparing to mandate the precise size of a “serving” (so to better fight obesity), busting Amish farmers for trafficking in raw milk, and policing massage devices.
For its part, the DOA has been advocating a soda pop tax, promoting roadside vegetable stands, developing school gardens, paying low-income households to eat fruits and vegetables, overseeing subsidized broadband deployment, and restoring wetlands in Florida.
The illness wrought by the salmonella outbreak is unfortunate indeed. But public health won’t be better protected by misdiagnosing the problem. Deregulation isn’t to blame for this or any of the other recent crises for which it’s been faulted—e.g., the Gulf oil spill and the financial meltdown. The fact is that misguided regulations are factors in each, and granting government ever more powers would cause worse problems, not prevent them.