Ach! Spinach Without Spin

Michael Giberson

Cindy Skrzycki writes:

It took a book called The Jungle, a grim assessment of work inside slaughterhouses, plus a campaign by labor unions, medical professionals and consumer groups, to pressure Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act on the same day in 1906.

The food industry was opposed to legislative and regulatory oversight then, as it is in many instances today.

But, as Ron Bailey explains, it is no “Jungle” out there:

In 1900, six years before Upton Sinclair wrote his great muckraking book, The Jungle, about the filthy conditions in the meatpacking industry, the death rate from gastritis, duodentitis, enteritis, and colitis was 142.7 people per 100,000. … Today, accepting CDC calculations of 5000 deaths per year implies a hundred-fold reduction, to just 1.4 deaths per 100,000 people.

While there is no comfort in the fact for those affected by the tainted spinach, we were fortunate, from a public policy perspective, that the germs were spread by a fresh, organically-grown vegetable rather than, say, a heavily processed meat product. Thus we are spared a lot of unhelpful editorial hand-wringing about factory farms and associated Puritan scolding about unhealthy diets. Instead, both the news and the editorializing has stayed relatively focused on what happened in this case and what we can learn from it.

Skrzycki describes the latest episode in the continuing comedy that is Washington, D.C., as nanny-state public interest groups seek to demonstrate that no consumer ailment is ever too small to justify a new federal agency. Unfortunately for the nanny-staters, Associated Press medical writer Marilynn Marchione reports that food borne illnesses are at record low levels. Perhaps the existing food safety regulatory superstructure is working, or maybe grocery distributors fear being struck by abusive lawsuits, or just maybe the industry is cleaning itself up out of good old capitalistic enlightened self-interest. Could be some crazy salad-like mix of all three social forces. One thing that seems pretty clear: our food is safer than it has ever been. Go buy some spinach.


2 thoughts on “Ach! Spinach Without Spin

  1. I do not think the food industry cares that much whether FDA gets recall authority. I am sure the industry would gladly trade that for uniform food labeling. My observation has been that the FDA does not really want explicit recall authority because in 99.9% of the cases the company voluntarily recalls products anyway when FDA “suggests” that they do so. I think FDA has testified before Congress that recall authority was not among their priorities. This is the best of all worlds for FDA because if FDA turns out to be wrong (as it was a few years ago with alleged Listeria in Sargento Cheese) they can deny responsibility stating that they did not order the food recalled, the manufacturer did that “voluntarily”.

  2. I do not think the food industry cares that much whether FDA gets recall authority. I am sure the industry would gladly trade that for uniform food labeling. My observation has been that the FDA does not really want explicit recall authority because in 99.9% of the cases the company voluntarily recalls products anyway when FDA “suggests” that they do so. I think FDA has testified before Congress that recall authority was not among their priorities. This is the best of all worlds for FDA because if FDA turns out to be wrong (as it was a few years ago with alleged Listeria in Sargento Cheese) they can deny responsibility stating that they did not order the food recalled, the manufacturer did that “voluntarily”.

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