Needed: More Regulation and Less Bitching

One perpetual and frustrating riff I hear on this blog and throughout the conservative elements of Virginia is the bug-a-boo about government regulation.

Everyone from the Gipper on down has told us that we need to get the government off our backs, that government is the problem. I think the opposite is true. We need government to actually do its job.

Ask people who eat peanut butter.

According to The Washington Post, Lynchburg-based Peanut Corporation of America shipped contaminated peanut butter from a plant in Blakely, Georgia 12 times in the past two years. The firm’s plant has been linked to a recent outbreak of salmonella that has killed eight people and sickened 502 in 43 states across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Closely-held Peanut Corporation of America doesn’t make the types of peanut butter who find on grocery shelves. Instead, it sells its product to foodmakers such as Kellogg, Trader Joe’s and Little Debbie which put in their products.

Federal investigators have found four strains of salmonella at the Georgia plant. One strain was found next to a washroom, which isn’t surprising since salmonella is spread by animal feces. It seems possible that some plant workers didn’t wash their hands thoroughly as instructed after using the toilet.

The firm isn’t required to share internal testing results for samonella with regulators. But there sems to be a problem with the lack of regulation. The Food and Drug Admininistration is tasked with plant inspections but in this case gve the job to Georgia state authorities. How come? FDA says it just doesn’t have enough regulators to go around.

State regulators inspected the plant most recently in October. Lo and behold, that’s when the contaminated batches of peanut butter this time around were being produced. But the Georgia regulators somehow didn’t test for salmonella. State authorities are investigating why they didn’t.

Getting hard-pressed state regulators to do the jobs of hard-presssed federal regulators has been the modus operandi for years. Here in Virginia, too-few state regulators actually do the heavy lifting for the feds by investigating hazardous chemical waste sites and air and water pollution control as mandated by federal laws.

The right-wing General Assembly is loath to spend much money on regulation because we just love that “pro business” moniker. We also go for loopey self-regulation. So, we really don’t have many regulators compared to other states which take public health and the environment more seriously.

Not many might remember but I sure am reminded of Kepone which polluted the James River back in the 1970s. The carcinogenic pesticide was made at a converted gas station through a scheme operated by now-defunct Allied Chemical. The idea was to somehow shield the chemical giant legally by having a little sub-company make the stuff at the Hopewell site. Waste ended up in Hopewell’s water sewage system and since it’s a chlorinated hydrocarbon that doesn’t break down, it retained its toxic potency for years after it was flushed into the James River.

So where were the state regulators? Probably off keeping the state safe for profits and business interests.

So next time you are bitching about government regulation or reading the pathetic new “Bacons Rebellion” e-zine operated by the dogmatic “Thomas Jefferson Institute” with its whining about the need for limited government, think peanut butter.

And think that half of the people affected by the peanut butter poisoning were children. They could be yours.

Peter Galuszka

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16 responses to “Needed: More Regulation and Less Bitching”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Ah, yes. that old statistical value of a human life argument.

    Would you spend another $5000 of tax money (some of it YOUR tax money) for peanut butter inspections? Or would you rather believe it is better to raise taxes on, say, mercury polluters by a hundred milllion dollars, to prevent the same number of deaths, eventually, somewhere.

    After all, if the polluter pays, it isn’t MY money.

    We need government to

    a) do its job


    b) do it wisely and cost effectively.


  2. Anonymous Avatar

    I’d say having safe food that doesn’t kill you is pretty damned important. Spend away!
    Peter Galuszka

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Me too. Especially when it is close to home.

    Do I worry about long term bio-accumulators that may eventually poison people somewhere, if they fry their fish in Arochlor?

    Sure I do.

    The question is how much do I want to spend on it. And whose money it it really?

    That’s when you get into things like locational costs and property rights.


  4. I think the next time someone discovered that the aspirin they took had mercury or some other nasty/deadly substance in it or their morning coffee had dioxin in it… ( or I could name dozens of similar nightmare scenarios….involving unpleasant and even deadly substances that might result from a truly “free” market


    that even the most ardent anti-government, anti-regulation folks would shut up ( or in the case of finance.. talk, instead, about unethical, greedy folks – rather than the REAL problem).

    The basic problem is that most of us take for granted the protections we enjoy – and where those protections come from …yes …from “onerous” and “intrusive” govmint regulation.

    and it’s true… it costs money…

    heck.. we could probably get stuff like aspirin and other medicines for a fraction of the current cost if we did not have all these silly regulations….

    we just take for granted that when we go into a store and buy a can of coffee – that it is pure coffee …and does not have lead fillings or PCBs in it.

    yes.. we do … but think as we drink that coffee.. we fire up the keyboard to complain about “onerous govmint regulation”.

    Oh.. I see… we actually WANT regulation for SOME things.. but certainly not on other things where it is not needed.


    Aw.. but then comes the inevitable rub….

    your vision of that elephant is different from the next guy and the next guy and so on and so forth…

    so.. we have situations like – California wanting to force companies that sell tuna to disclose how much mercury is actually in their tuna – and others saying that this would be “wrong” to force these companies to do that.

    It’s okay that we force them to test the tuna for protein and fat – and to put that on the label.. but not the mercury…


    oh…because… we have too much govmint regulation – right?

  5. Groveton Avatar

    We may have to spend more on regulation. But what the hey – President Obama and Congress are dusting off about a trillion dollars in stimulus spending. Maybe sprinkle a little on food inspectors. Or, is there a good reason why this should be done by the state instead of the feds?

    As for government inspections that already occur and are already funded – I see problems. In my personal experience building a house (or, more accurately, having a builder build a house) demonstrates the problem. The house was inspected by county inspectors over and over again as it was built. I spent as much time as possible at the site but I travel a lot and just couldn’t be there on many days / weeks. I’ve been in the house for 5 years and the problems just keep on coming. Last Monday a pipe burst and flooded my basement. By pire luck, I found it pretty quickly and shut off the water. but the water still ruined the carpet in three rooms and the baseboard and drywall in quite a few areas too. The plumber I hired to fix the broken pipe called me into the room where the pipe broke. “This is ridiculous” he said. “It’s not to code.” “It should never have passed inspection.”

    That’s about the 5th time I’ve been told that in the last 5 years. In every case I’ve been shown the problem and it quite obviously should not have passed inspection.

    So, I pay a fee for building permits. Inspectors have been hired and are inspecting. However, they are somehow looking past obvious problems. Ultimately, these problems are hidden once the drywall goes up. Then, one day, the hidden problem creates the fiasco that never should have happened.

    So, I think more regulation is probably in order. However, better management of government is a pre-requisite. The conservatives err when they claim that all government regulation represents an unfair intrusion into free enterprise. However, the liberals err when they think that just spensing more and hiring more will solve the problem Government is poorly run. More regulations and regulators will just add to the pile of poorly run government operations unless something changes.

    Plenty of government regulators perform bank audits. Government employees from many agencies pour over the books of any bank under the FDIC or FSLIC program. I have never heard that the problems caused by credit default swaps were hidden from government auditors. Instead, I believe that the auditors / inspectors just weren’t capable of understanding what they were seeing. That capability gap needs to be addressed.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    I hate to tell you, larry, but your morning coffe probably has dioxin and mercury in it, along with a lot of other bad stuff.

    I once had a contract with the postal service doing analysis against mail fraud cases. Frequently you couln’t get them on false advertising, but if you could find some contaminant, you could use that to shut them down. Kind of an Al Capone approach.

    It isn’t too hard to find bad stuff with today’s instruments. Plus, as Larry points out, thee is stuff we haven’t decided is bad – yet.

    So the real problem is to decide rationally how much money you want to spend for which regulations which will prevent how many of what kin of deaths and injuries.

    We are really lousy at doing that, because we develop or engender irrational fears and unreacheable constraints. We are distressed by a hundred dollar loss more than we enjoy a hundred dollar gain, for example.

    We pretty much know what people die from, although in the case of environmental contaminants a lot of them may just get lumped under the heading “cancer”.

    We could, if we choose figure out how much it wouod cost to prevent deaths in each category, and spend the money first where it would do the most good the cheapest way.

    Then work our way down the list to save the mnostlives with the money we have.

    We would run out of money a long time before we got to Dioxin and Kepone, bad as they are.

    But the people who think that every threat has to be annihilated, no matter what the cost, aren’t going to listen to that argument.

    At one time there was a regulation that auto speedometers not read over 80 MPH. It probably saved a lot of teenagers from getting killed while they were trying to “bury the needle”. That regulation cost almost nothing, but it went away because it was considered “government interference”.

    It’s sad, really. We need special interests, to keep government on its toes, but we also neeg government to make special interests talk sense.

    It seems we get neither, most of the time.


  7. As Groveton and Ray both point out, deciding to regulate something does not guarantee that a good job of doing it will be done.

    As far as dioxin and stuff being in coffee.. (or not).. then why are we worrying about salmonella in peanut butter?

    oh.. and how about drugs that don’t contain what they must contain in order for them to treat your condition?

    I can name dozens, hundreds of examples of how regulation does not guarantee perfection but then we are not after perfection, are we?

    so at the end of the day… would you guys say that the answer to these problems is to not have inspections at all and just take your chances?

    I suspect that your answer will not be “yes” and at best.. another 1000 word tap-dance by Ray….explaining the winner/loser theories.

    Answer up guys – regulation … imperfect but in effect…

    or regulation.. totally “free market”?

    one sentence responses welcomed. 😉

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    then why are we worrying about salmonella in peanut butter?

    The fix for salmonella in PB is easy and well-known and cheap.

    Also it is getting a lot of hysterical press right now. everyne likes their PB and the idea it might kill you is disconcerting.

    When I operate my boat, my idea is to get the most grins/buck, not to have the perfect boat. We CANNOT have perfect control over dioxin, or any other contaminant, and we should not expect to. What we can do is attempt to get the most control/buck.

    When I hear people complaining about “too much control” I think what they mean is stupid and expensive control.

    Like taping silt fence on the side of an adjacent building to prevent run-off. not because it will actually prevent run-off (in that case) but because it is the law.

    If you wish to take the mileage deduction for medical travel you must keep a little book and record the starting and ending odometer reading for every trip to the pharmacy or doctor. The government gains nothing of use from requiring those columns of oomeer numbers, but they expect the hassle will deter you from claiming a benefit otherwise allowed under the law. And it costs the government nothing to collect the numbers, which they don’t look at anyway, unless you have an audit.

    THAT is interference and excess regulation. It is not only stupid and wasteful, it is cynical as well.

    I don’t have a problem with regulation, I have a problem with regulation that costs more than it is worth.

    Larry will ask, how do you know? Well, first you have to recognize what the problem is, then you have to look for it. And the act of looking can be just as crazy as the act of regulationg: the search may cost you more than the savings you find at the end.


  9. Groveton Avatar

    A bit off topic but a great article on the problems in the US automotive industry:

  10. E M Risse Avatar


    Good post and improtant issue.

    Turns out US Peanut is HQed in Lynchburg. Corp leadership must not go to any of those churches we hear so much about in Lynchburg.

    On the bigger point, President Obama said the question is not if govrnment is too big or too small but if it is working well.

    Right now, not so well.

    EMR would add Agencies (aka, government) can NEVER work well if it is the wrong SHAPE.

    Agencies must reflect the real economic, social and physical contours of the citizens they manage (aka, govern).

    That is what “the framers” tried to do 219 years ago. They did as good a job as anyone had done up to that point.

    That was then;

    This is now.

    There is almost no goverence structure at the largest scale where direct democracy is most effecient. There is NONE at the scale of the most important component of contemporary civilization.

    Did someone say Fundamental Transformation?

    We advocate New Urban Region scale responsibility for food supply safety and Community scale labs.

    Turn on the sunshine and let citizens deside the costs and benefits at the scale where it makes the most sense.

    More in Trickle Down II.


  11. I think the peanut recall is important for 3 distinct reasons:

    1. – it shows how widespread the supply chain is for food in this country – not to mention – calls into question – the idea of NURs having their food grown “locally”.

    That plant in Georgia – supplied bulk peanut butter for literally hundreds of other companies and institutions across the country.

    2. – it demonstrates the promise and the failure of regulation.

    In “theory” the regulation was “supposed” to insure that food was processed under sanitary conditions.

    In “practice”, not mentioned, are the hundreds, thousands of bulk peanut companies that DID successfully process clean, uncontaminated peanut butter (we hope).

    3. – It also shows that there is a middle ground of not “too much” regulation …i.e. a “perfect” system…

    of course, the question remains open with respect to whether or not there is the “right amount”.

    Bonus Point –

    In an EMR world – what I get out of reading/understanding his views is that in a post Fundamental Transformation World – we’d have NUR-specific regulations – rather than National?

    or perhaps .. EMR – visualizes a National function for regulation of food and drugs…

    so which is it EMR?

  12. In general – a question to all:

    Do you agree that the government should be regulating?

    Do you think the cost of regulation should be:

    1. – assigned directly to the cost of what is being regulated?

    2. – be a tax-funded activity where the government then decides how much money to spend on specific regulations?

    Bonus Question:

    Should the State Government or the Federal Government regulate food and drug safety?

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    The number of lifeboats on the Titanic was regulated…….

    Building codes are regulated……

    The point being that regulations frequently become minimum standards, which might still be insufficient. But the Titanic situation (and many others) show that the principals are frequently incapable of regulating themselvs.

    At the same time, they are the ones with the most information to do it well, and right.

    What they need is the right incentive(s). Unfortunately, what we see instead is government getting too cozy with the principals. Even worse we see a confused role for government when they sometimes are in the position of both promoting and regulating an industry, like the FAA.

    My response is that government needs to be in the regulation business, and the regulation business needs to be specifically designed so that the regulations are not straightjackets.

    Under the building codes there are two basic ways to build a house. If you want a yurt or a dome or an earth house, you are pretty much out of luck, unless you hire an engineer. The codes have therefore become a full employment act for all sorts of engineers.

    Somewhere, we lost a sensible middle ground.


    As for who pays, it seems obvious to me that the people being protected should be the ones who pay. That way THEY can decide how much insurance they want.


  14. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Peter, the debate over food safety and regulation is one well worth having. However, I think it only fair to observe that you create a straw man by pointing to “the conservative elements of Virginia” having a “bug-a-boo” about government regulation — as if regulatory practices in Virginia have something to do with the origin of tainted food in Georgia.

    First, I would observe that nearly all free-market conservatives would agree that government regulation is necessary for the protection of the public health. There may be a few fringe laissez-faire purists who think that the free market could handle such problems, but I can’t think of any. The question isn’t whether government should regulate food safety, or how many bodies they should throw at the problem, but how effective is it? (And, as Ray points out, how cost effective is it?)

    My impression is that Virginia regulators do a pretty good job with food safety. The kepone incident occurred more than 30 years ago — and, incidentally, had nothing to do with food safety. Before you blast that evil “right wing” General Assembly in Virginia, you might offer some evidence that food safety regulation *here in Virginia* is actually a problem. Otherwise, you don’t have a leg to stand on.

    Now, Peanut Butter Corporation of America is a Virginia company, and, based on the facts as we know them, it deserves more than a hand slap for violating food safety protocols. The company needs to feel some pain for its laxity. I would suggest that the company will suffer far greater punishment at the hands of its corporate customers and insurers than the state regulators of Georgia. If I were Kelloggs, Trader Joe or Little Debbie, I would be looking for another supplier right now and/or demanding monetary compensation for damanges caused to my reputation. And if I were the company’s insurer, I’d be jacking up my insurance rates and crawling over every single one of the company’s plants with my own risk-management analysts.

    Meanwhile, it helps to expose the senior management to community shame and ridicule: Virginians need to make it clear that we have no sympathy or respect for corporate executives who allow such lapses. We want to see some sign that management is genuinely penitent for its sins, is making restitution and is taking measures to ensure that the incidents are never repeated.

  15. E M Risse Avatar

    Larry said:

    “In an EMR world – what I get out of reading/understanding his views is that in a post Fundamental Transformation World – we’d have NUR-specific regulations – rather than National?

    “or perhaps .. EMR – visualizes a National function for regulation of food and drugs…

    “so which is it EMR?”

    Larry, why ask questions that you should already know the answer?

    Level of control at level of impact.

    In food safety there are multiple levels of impact so multiple levels of regulation, inspection, enforcement are called for.

    Bumping everything to the federal level (in this and other spheres) means one fed administration can gut most regulation of health and safety — peanuts, salad greens, water, air, cribs, toys, pet food, disaster relief .. you name it.

    National standards for Regional regulations, inspection and enforcement supplemented by Community / informed citizen monitoring, testing and enforcement.

    There is no question that “red tape” is a problem but it is almost always the result of the wrong level of control and enforcement. Examples from zoning to NLRB.

    The question is not the size of government but how well it works and if it is not the right SHAPE it cannont function well.


  16. Anonymous Avatar

    Jim Bacon,
    I’ve been reporting on and off on Virginia since 1973 and believe me there is a strong view among conservatives in the state that regulation is evil as is most everything about “government.” Your point about the fact that the peanut butter mess occurred in Georgia is a bit disingenuous. It could have very well happened in Virginia.
    Now, on to the next topic. The Washington Post has a Merto sectionlead about the lawsuit filed by the family of a man bound for deportation who died in a “privatized” holding cell down Farmville way. This is facility run by a Richmond group that wants to expand its privatized prisons for illegal aliens on behalf of federal ICE. Turns out the man’s complaints about chest pains were ignored and he died of a heart attack, according to the suit.
    So where were the regulators there?

    Peter Galuszka

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