For anyone that does not think that politics can be front and center in decisions on the safety of our food, order your eggs “sunny side up” and sit down with Lyndsey Layton’s front page story in the Washington Post “Unsafe eggs linked to U.S. failure act” at your local diner this morning. You may just get more than just heartburn.

Breakfast Meal.jpgAs you dip your toast in the egg, do not forget that we just finished up a recall of over 500,000,000 eggs that sickened at least 1,900. The hearings at the House Energy and Commerce Committee were the typical theatre that I have become accustomed to – with the victims (my clients) and the villains (the guys I am suing). However, as Ms. Layton points out:

…. What has not drawn much scrutiny is the role of the federal government, which recognized 20 years ago that salmonella in eggs posed a public health threat. Although federal inspectors have closely monitored meat and poultry production for the better part of a century, they have largely ignored eggs, another staple of the American diet. It was not until July, well after the recent outbreak was underway, that the government’s first rules on safe egg production took effect.

Unlike other regulatory efforts, this one did not sputter under lobbying pressure by business. In fact, the $4.4 billion egg industry had been seeking mandatory rules for years, despite the red tape and extra costs. Consumer groups wanted the regulation, and public health experts supported it, along with economists who said the benefits would far outweigh the costs. …

So, why did it take 20 years? As her report continues:

…. But the proposal was thwarted by government itself – philosophical resistance to regulating business as well as rivalries and dysfunction at two federal agencies that share responsibility for keeping egg production safe….

Balkanization was a key factor in the government’s failure to regulate eggs over the past two decades. The push for federal rules on egg production stalled in the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations as the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture dug into their own silos. It collapsed when the George W. Bush administration brought a renewed skepticism about regulation to the executive branch. …

Politics matters and philosophy matters:

… “Essentially, they said, ‘Show us how many people are sick, dying and hospitalized, and show us your rule is worth the cost,” said William Hubbard, associate FDA commissioner from 1991 to 2005. The FDA thought it had a compelling case. The rules would cost farmers $82 million a year but could save $1.4 billion in medical costs and lost productivity by preventing 79,000 illnesses and 30 deaths a year. Still, OMB “didn’t think there were enough bodies in the street,” Hubbard said….

How’s that egg?