Death by deregulation

Death by deregulation

America relearns a painful lesson that far right ideologues helped it forget

The news has been full of disturbing stories of late about innocent people being sickened – some grievously – as the result of shockingly callous behavior on the part of corporate profiteers. Last year, it was product after product (pet food, toys, etc…) from the People's Free Market Republic of China. In recent weeks the issue has hit closer to home. First it was Georgia peanut butter, and then this week, medical syringes from Raleigh.

Desiree Evans over at the Durham-based Institute for Southern Studies does a good job of summarizing the recent incidents:

"It hasn't been a good year so far in terms of preventing regulatory failures at Southern manufacturing plants. The nation is still reeling from a massive salmonella outbreak linked to peanut products from the Peanut Corporation of America's plant in Blakely, Ga., that has sickened some 666 people and may have contributed to nine deaths. More than 2,000 peanut products have been recalled. The deadly outbreak was fueled by poor oversight by food safety regulators and a slow response by federal agencies, experts say

This week news surfaced that the North Carolina syringe factory, AM2PAT Inc., which knowingly distributed tainted syringes, operated for almost two years without a federal inspection despite a series of complaints that its needles were dirty or filled with colored particles, reports the Associated Press.

AM2PAT is accused of skipping sterilization testing of its syringes in 2007 and shipping contaminated needles filled with the blood-thinner Heparin and saline solution. Along with five deaths, AM2PAT's contaminated syringes sickened some 300 people, causing a variety of severe injuries, including spinal meningitis and permanent brain damage."

Evans goes on to note that both of these incidents are pretty easily attributable to inadequate staffing and resources that plague the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

One of Raleigh's sharpest state government and politics reporters, Jack Betts of the Charlotte Observer, has a similar take to Evans. He noted yesterday in his blog, This Old State, that these kinds of FDA failings were at one time the top priority of a North Carolina congressman named L.H. Fountain:

"…[E]arly in his career in Washington as the congressman from North Carolina's 2nd Congressional District, Fountain realized how critical the FDA was to safe foods and drugs in America. Over the years he became a watchdog of the FDA, frequently writing pointed letters to the agency over reported problems and holding congressional hearings before his governmental operations oversight subcommittee. He steered the work of hundreds of investigations into the FDA's operations.

In both [the peanut and syringe] cases, inadequate inspections and failures to follow through on reports of problems exposed the FDA's ineptitude. Had Fountain still been in Congress, he may have been involved in inquiries, issued subpoenas and held hearings into the FDA's oversight of these problem companies long ago….We could benefit from another L.H. Fountain right about now."

Who's responsible?

Evans and Betts are right to lay blame for these most recent health disasters at the feet of FDA. A recent Associated Press study notes that the agency has been devolving many of its responsibilities to underfunded state-level officials for years.

"State investigators performed more than half the Food and Drug Administration's food inspections in 2007, according to an AP analysis of FDA data. That represents a dramatic rise from a decade ago, when FDA investigators performed three out of four of the federal government's inspections."

The report noted further that:

"Increased inspection responsibilities have not been accompanied by big spending increases in many states responsible for the bulk of the nation's food production."

There is, however, more to the story. FDA didn't become a pale shadow of its once formidable self overnight or by accident. The enfeeblement of the agency that has occurred is the direct result of intentional action over the last few decades by an alliance of corporations, lobbyists, right-wing think tanks and the politicians of both major parties.

Greg Anrig, Vice President for Policy at a respected national think tank known as The Century Foundation, put it this way in an article for The American Prospect in 2007:

"Charting the phases of the FDA's decline lays bare the responsibility borne by movement conservatism. The first phase was the two terms of the Reagan presidency, when the FDA's staff declined by 30 percent. After a reprieve from 1988 to 1994, when more moderate presidents and a Democratic Congress provided ample boosts in the agency's budget and staffing, the FDA's garroting resumed with a vengeance in the wake of the 1994 Republican landslide that catapulted Gingrich to the House Speaker's chair. He led a highly effective jihad against the agency, pushing to privatize many of its activities. The onslaught continued under George W. Bush and the Republican Congress. From 1994 to 2007, according to former FDA chief counsel Hutt, the agency's appropriated personnel declined from 9,167 to 7,856, while its funding increased by only two-thirds of the amount that would have been needed to keep up with inflation.

As with virtually every other regulatory agency under Bush, the FDA henhouse has been guarded by foxes. That is, for top leadership positions the administration chose political appointees with close ties to the industries they regulate. That strategy of stifling nonpolitical career civil servants, not incidentally, conforms with recommendations the Heritage Foundation made to Bush at the outset of his term. One example at the FDA was chief counsel Dan Troy, a longtime opponent of FDA regulation who had previously represented Pfizer."

Not surprisingly, anti-FDA activism at the national level has trickled down to the North Carolina conservative echo chambers. Over the years, the Locke Foundation has published a number of articles that have been critical of FDA – along with just about every other effort by federal regulators to intervene in the market on behalf of consumers.   

Setting the record straight

When it comes to food and drug safety, the truth is not that complicated: public consumer protection structures can and do work. They may have boring alphabet soup names and feature their share of bureaucrats. They may publish long and complex regulations and be a pain in the neck for good citizen businesses. They may employ fully human employees who sometimes get enamored of their own importance and go overboard. They may even deserve their own watchdogs who will keep them from screwing up.

But when you get right down to it, there's no denying that vibrant regulatory bureaucracies are a necessary component of a healthy marketplace and a healthy society.

As in so many other areas of our society, this was once a lesson that the nation's business leaders seemed to grasp and even embrace. Today, however, decades of ideological propaganda extolling the primacy of self-interest and the evils of common good solutions have taken their toll.

As it goes about the Herculean tasks that confront it, let's hope the Obama administration makes the reversal of this trend and the resuscitation of common good values in public safety regulation one of it top priorities.   

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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