The New Food Safety Bill and the Power of Targeted Fear

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The Senate’s bi-partisan approval of overhauling the food safety system by granting the F.D.A. authority to implement stronger regulation, increased inspections and recall powers is great news and a testament to the persuasive powers of targeted fear. Many people don’t fully appreciate how corrupt, poorly regulated and dangerous the industry currently is, which is why I recommend watching the documentary called Food Inc and reading Michael Pollan, but it appears that the most recent salmonella outbreak has finally pushed America to embrace stronger law enforcement over food companies.

Pollan teamed up with fellow food safety advocate Eric Schlosser to compose a New York Times Op-Ed on Monday in support of the legislation. Most intriguing among the many persuasive statistics they cite—from the fact that roughly 5,000 Americans die every year because of contaminated food to the notion that allocating $300 million annually for enhancing the F.D.A.’s powers, as the legislation would require, is a pittance compared to the $152 billion spent each year on treating food related illness— is that “80 percent of Americans support strengthening the F.D.A.’s authority to regulate food.”

This is highly unusual in today’s hostile, anti-government climate, and it is also surprising when one considers that for years there have occurred “tens of millions of food-contamination illnesses” annually, according to The Times. But the most recent salmonella outbreak, spread by chickens raised in manure-infested factories and poisoning thousands, has garnered national attention and dramatically transformed public opinion.

In ways, this paradigm resembles the development of financial reform. In April only half the population favored stronger regulation of banks, according to a Gallup poll, even though Wall Street nearly destroyed the financial system in 2008 and has consistently manufactured devastating boom-bust cycles leading to mass bank runs every decade since Ronald Reagan unleashed the full force of the free market by brushing aside the Glass-Steagall Act. Contrived or not, the S.E.C.’s lawsuit against Goldman Sachs during the summer shifted public opinion towards supporting reform, as a September Gallup poll shows that 61% approve the legislation.

Both developments suggest that, as usual, fear is the greatest motivator for action. But not just fear in any form. It must be targeted. It’s one thing to say that “the food industry” kills thousands and poisons millions, but a far more effective way to rally the public is by exposing the disgusting filth that abounds in a particular factory responsible for a devastating salmonella outbreak. Similarly, with Wall Street, Americans have had trouble deciding whom they hate more—the financial firms, or the government for failing to prevent the sub-prime mortgage crisis and then bailing out the banks. The Goldman Sachs lawsuit, however, enabled the public to focus on an isolated display of inexcusable fiscal malfeasance, and the narrow hostility expanded into an overall condemnation of the financial sector, thus smoothing the path for financial reform.

This also helps explain why Anthem inadvertently helped Obama pass the new health care laws by jacking up premiums in California shortly before Congress voted. And it further clarifies why 9/11 pushed Bush and the public to pursue a strong counterterrorism agenda even though we had been attacked by Al Qaeda numerous times before, both on American soil and at U.S. embassies abroad.

One wonders, however, why the BP oil spill has not spurred an overwhelming push for a coherent plan to transcend fossil fuels and turn to clean energy.

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A recent graduate of NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, I consider myself a student of Melville and Shakespeare. Particularly, my fascination with Moby Dick has sparked a broader interest in many fields such as politics, history, science, economics, etc, since that novel deals with disparate disciplines and issues in an encyclopedic, yet accessible manner.

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