Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Yes, We Have No Tomatoes Today

Because tomatoes these days might give you salmonella. What with the recent spinach scare and the scare about pet food from China and on and on, it's hard not marvel at the inventiveness of the unregulated markets in these fields. We get so much at such a low price! Too bad that we get some things we don't want, because the incentive to keep costs low also opens up interesting avenues for saving a cent off there, a penny off here, by replacing safe but expensive ingredients with something cheaper or by not taking certain hygienic precautions which cost time and money.

It's all fun and games, in the manner of markets with incomplete information. Consumers can't check tomatoes for salmonella bacteria or pet food or medications for possibly poisonous substances. Well, they could if each consumer bought a small home laboratory and learned how to use it. But that's a very expensive way of guaranteeing safety in the food and medicine markets.

What's cheaper, then? Perhaps it just might be that old bugbear: government regulation. Even the Bush administration now seems to think so. Otherwise it would be hard to know why suddenly the idea of getting rid of FDA workers and labs has lost its lustre:

Two days after announcing a large-scale recall of raw tomatoes, the Bush administration asked Congress on Monday to give the Food and Drug Administration an additional $275 million in next year's budget to help improve the safety of the nation's food supply.

"I would like to once again strongly urge Congress to act quickly to enhance the safety of food and medical products," said Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt in an evening conference call with reporters.

With the added money, the F.D.A. would open offices in China, India and Central America and provide more inspections of food and medical products, Mr. Leavitt said. The agency would also hire another 490 people in addition to hires the agency already planned.

"We'll be able to expand the total workforce by 1,500 people, or 15 percent growth," the food and drug commissioner, Andrew C. von Eschenbach, said.

This is a 180 degree turn from positions this administration took just a few years ago. Remarkable.

Perhaps a tomato salad to celebrate?