An editorial in today's New York Times faults Republicans in the House of Representatives for cutting funding from President Obama's proposed budgets for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food inspection service and the Food and Drug Administration's food safety programs. The editorial begins,
PRESIDENT'S F.Y. 2010-11 REQUEST: $1.036 BILLION
HOUSE VOTED: $930 MILLION
F.D.A. Food Safety
PRESIDENT'S F.Y. 2010-11 REQUEST: $856 MILLION
HOUSE VOTED: $727 MILLION
Let's take the FDA first. What the Times editorial doesn't mention is that even at the House's reduced spend of $727 million a year, the FDA food safety budget would be a 17% increase over the FDA's 2008 food safety budget of $619.6 million. There isn't 17% more food in America to inspect than there was before President Obama took office.
On the USDA, even President Obama's budget cuts USDA food safety from the 2008 level of $1.07 billion. The Obama administration essentially concedes the government was spending too much on USDA food safety, and agrees that spending levels should be reduced; there's just a dispute about how deep to cut.
If you put the 2008 budgets for both the USDA and the FDA food safety programs together, they are about $1.69 billion. If you put the House's voted budgets for both the USDA and FDA food safety programs together, they are about $1.66 billion. The Republicans campaigned in 2010 on a national promise to bring federal spending back to 2008, or pre-Obama, levels. What they are doing here is keeping their promises.
The Times editorial approach to these questions is almost comical: "To ensure the safety of these products, inspectors must be on site at all times. If they're not, the plant must stop work." Somehow the Times editorialists manage to crank out editorials without having a government inspector in the newsroom at all times. The prospect of private regulation — the idea that the food-producers might have their own incentives to sell untainted food, so that they can satisfy their customers and prevent the reputational and business damage that comes from an adverse event — never seems to occur to the Times editorialists. Nor does the possibility that technology — even remote monitoring via video camera — might make the constant on-site presence of inspectors unneccessary.
The Times warns that a lack of funding for USDA meat, poultry, and egg inspections would force "loss of meat and poultry production at about $11 billion over the next seven months" and "make a large dent in Americans' household budgets, as reduced supplies drive up costs." The prospect that this might drive Americans to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or other foods whose manufacture is not so perilous as to require the presence of an on-site government inspector doesn't seem to have crossed the minds of the Times editorialists.