By Senator Tom Coburn, M.D.
Published in USA Today on November 23, 2010
America has the safest food supply in the world, and it has never been safer. The rates of food-borne illness have been declining for more than a decade. Still, tragic outbreaks do occur and government can take common-sense steps to make our food supply even safer.
Unfortunately, highly publicized events such as last summer's egg salmonella scare often have the opposite effect. Politicians tend to overreact to a crisis and impose new and invasive regulations. Soon, the law of diminishing returns takes effect with billions in extra spending having little impact, or even a negative impact.
The so-called FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, which the Senate will vote on after Thanksgiving, only expands a disjointed, duplicative and ineffective food safety bureaucracy. The Government Accountability Office has consistently called this bureaucracy "high risk due to (its) greater vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement."
Far from offering common-sense reforms, this bill doubles-down on the status quo -- which failed to prevent the salmonella outbreak -- with 250 pages of new bureaucracy and regulations. Expanding the Food and Drug Administration will harm small businesses and raise prices at the grocery store -- all without having a meaningful impact on food safety.
Throughout the debate, proponents have claimed we haven't modernized food safety laws in 100 years. That proves my point. For the past 100 years, the free market, not the government, has been the primary driver of innovation and improved safety. Consumer choice is a far more effective accountability mechanism than government bureaucracies.
I am offering an alternative bill to require better coordination among agencies and improve badly outdated information technology systems and other processes agencies use to protect our food supply. My plan leverages the free market by utilizing private inspections and allowing the FDA to focus on bad actors.
Rather than spending billions of dollars, forcing food companies to comply with new regulations, and saddling consumers with increased food prices, we should pursue reforms that will allow regulatory agencies to more effectively and efficiently prevent outbreaks. When Congress returns, my colleagues should reject the false assumption that growing government means safer food and instead promote market forces that work.
Tom Coburn is a medical doctor and a Republican senator from Oklahoma.