The New York Times May 21, 2007


Fear of Eating




Yesterday I did something risky: I ate a salad.


These are anxious days at the lunch table. For all you know, there

may be E. coli on your spinach, salmonella in your peanut butter and

melamine in your pet's food and, because it was in the feed, in your

chicken sandwich.


Who's responsible for the new fear of eating? Some blame

globalization; some blame food-producing corporations; some blame the

Bush administration. But I blame Milton Friedman.


Now, those who blame globalization do have a point. U.S. officials

can't inspect overseas food-processing plants without the permission

of foreign governments - and since the Food and Drug Administration

has limited funds and manpower, it can inspect only a small

percentage of imports. This leaves American consumers effectively

dependent on the quality of foreign food-safety enforcement. And

that's not a healthy place to be, especially when it comes to imports

from China, where the state of food safety is roughly what it was in

this country before the Progressive movement.


The Washington Post, reviewing F.D.A. documents, found that last

month the agency detained shipments from China that included dried

apples treated with carcinogenic chemicals and seafood "coated with

putrefying bacteria." You can be sure that a lot of similarly unsafe

and disgusting food ends up in American stomachs.


Those who blame corporations also have a point. In 2005, the F.D.A.

suspected that peanut butter produced by ConAgra, which sells the

product under multiple brand names, might be contaminated with

salmonella. According to The New York Times, "when agency inspectors

went to the plant that made the peanut butter, the company

acknowledged it had destroyed some product but declined to say why,"

and refused to let the inspectors examine its records without a

written authorization.


According to the company, the agency never followed through. This

brings us to our third villain, the Bush administration.


Without question, America's food safety system has degenerated over

the past six years. We don't know how many times concerns raised by

F.D.A. employees were ignored or soft-pedaled by their superiors.

What we do know is that since 2001 the F.D.A. has introduced no

significant new food safety regulations except those mandated by



This isn't simply a matter of caving in to industry pressure. The

Bush administration won't issue food safety regulations even when the

private sector wants them. The president of the United Fresh Produce

Association says that the industry's problems "can't be solved

without strong mandatory federal regulations": without such

regulations, scrupulous growers and processors risk being undercut by

competitors more willing to cut corners on food safety. Yet the

administration refuses to do more than issue nonbinding guidelines.


Why would the administration refuse to regulate an industry that

actually wants to be regulated? Officials may fear that they would

create a precedent for public-interest regulation of other

industries. But they are also influenced by an ideology that says

business should never be regulated, no matter what.


The economic case for having the government enforce rules on food

safety seems overwhelming. Consumers have no way of knowing whether

the food they eat is contaminated, and in this case what you don't

know can hurt or even kill you. But there are some people who refuse

to accept that case, because it's ideologically inconvenient.


That's why I blame the food safety crisis on Milton Friedman, who

called for the abolition of both the food and the drug sides of the

F.D.A. What would protect the public from dangerous or ineffective

drugs? "It's in the self-interest of pharmaceutical companies not to

have these bad things," he insisted in a 1999 interview. He would

presumably have applied the same logic to food safety (as he did to

airline safety): regardless of circumstances, you can always trust

the private sector to police itself.


O.K., I'm not saying that Mr. Friedman directly caused tainted

spinach and poisonous peanut butter. But he did help to make our food

less safe, by legitimizing what the historian Rick Perlstein calls

"E. coli conservatives": ideologues who won't accept even the most

compelling case for government regulation.


Earlier this month the administration named, you guessed it, a "food

safety czar." But the food safety crisis isn't caused by the

arrangement of the boxes on the organization chart. It's caused by

the dominance within our government of a literally sickening ideology.

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