14,000 pets are reported to have been made sick, and 4,000 pets may have died, due to pet food contaminated with melamine. Banned in the U.S, melamine is a primary chemical used in the creation of various resins, plastics, and glues. In China, melamine is a routine addition to animal feed—feed which is being sold in the U.S.14,000 pets are reported to have been made sick, and 4,000 pets appear to have died, due to pet food contaminated with melamine. Banned in the U.S, melamine is a primary chemical used in the creation of various resins, plastics, and glues. In China, melamine is a routine addition to animal feed—feed which is being sold in the U.S.
The contamination wasn’t restricted to pet food. The feed has been tracked to hog farms, including three in Utah, and a Utah poultry operation. In other words, it has entered the human food chain. There isn’t any evidence yet that contaminated food products have reached store shelves, nor is it certain that melamine contaminated meat poses health risk.
Why was this contamination so easily able to enter into the country?
“The public thinks the food supply is much more protected than it is,” said William Hubbard, a former agency associate commissioner who left in 2005 after 27 years. “If people really knew how weak the FDA program is, they would be shocked.” (International Herald Tribune, “As U.S. imports more food, FDA falters“)
As the years go by, the amount of food products entering into the U.S. markets continue to rise. According to a report in the Boston Globe, Food products from foreign sources have nearly quadrupled in the past decade, vastly increasing the potential sources of contamination. And yet the FDA, the agency responsible for ensuring the safety of our food products, has dwindled from just over 4,000 to under 3,500. In other words, while the workload has been skyrocketing, the resources available have been diminishing. This is a recipe for disaster.
“The whole thing, from a management perspective, is just a shipwreck,” said Carl R. Nielsen , former director of the FDA division that handles import operations and policy (Boston Globe, “Food Imports Seldom Checked”).
Tommy Thompson, a former secretary of health and human services, expressed deep concern about the American food supply when he resigned, for unrelated reasons, in December 2004. “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.(IHT)”
The fact that the FDA has been allowed to atrophy is hardly surprising. Conservative philosophy disdains the sort of government power which agencies and departments like the FDA can wield. They see those bureaucracies as representing regulation, restriction of freedom, restraint of entrepreneurship, and unjustified government power. It was about such government bodies as the FDA, EPA, OSHA, and Department of Education to which conservative activist Grover Norquist referred when he said “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” I myself once observed a conversation between conservative family members in which they disparaged the FDA work as merely hindering the efforts of entrepreneurs in getting innovative medical or dietary products to market.
This melamine fiasco reveals a crucial truth that these conservative critics tend to ignore. The FDA, properly funded and staffed, is necessary to protect the public from the potential carelessness, negligence, and deception of entrepreneurs. Snake-oil salesmen have proven willing to sell all sorts of hazardous materials under the banner of “health products.” Even well-meaning and sincere innovators can make mistakes which can have disastrous consequences in a global marketplace.
It is worth acknowledging that there are some tradeoffs. Potentially miraculous products are delayed while research is performed and claims investigated. Such is the price we pay for having some fundamental level of confidence in the integrity of the goods and services we exchange. Without that confidence, we risk chaos. Commerce does not function well in chaos.
Conservatives would suggest that the market is the most efficient body for weeding out the goats from the sheep. That contention is absurd. How many average citizens have access to a research lab or time to read hundreds of pages of scientific data? While there is no doubt that we should all seek to be informed consumers and maximize the value of our purchasing decisions, the average consumer does not have the time or resources with which to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of all their consumption choices. Consumer advocacy and public interest groups such as the Consumers Union, Union of Concerned Scientists, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Better Business Bureau, Consumer Federation of America, Ripoff Report, and Public Citizen are all very valuable forces in providing information and education. But none can require disclosure or demand inspections before a product is released to market. None can prevent a product which fails to meet their standards from entering the marketplace. By the time those groups can operate, a hazardous product has already entered the marketplace and began to do its harm. Only a government body has authority to demand access to identify potentially dangerous items before they hit the shelves. Only government agencies can prohibit products from entering the marketplace and wreaking havoc. As important as personal initiative and NGOs are, government involvement is necessary to ensure a basic level of health and safety standards in the public welfare in order to promote the general welfare.
The government maintained by this conservative administration has not been able to meet this need. We need leaders who recognize the integral service agencies like the FDA perform. We need to constantly evaluate the performance of those agencies, and see how we can improve them to operate more effectively and efficiently. But it is foolhardy to allow their strenght to lapse in the pursuit of some ideological ideal. We were fortunate this time that the toll was confined to our pets and livestock. If we continue to follow this short-sighted conservative vision, we may pay a much higher price next time.