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Perishable Thoughts

As attention turns to Capitol Hill and these hearings while simultaneously, in this election season, we rely on our congressional representatives to solve the many problems illustrated in the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, we ought to remember some comic lines from Aristophanes:

If we withdraw the confidence we placed
In these our present statesmen, and transfer it
To those whom we mistrusted heretofore,
This seems I think our fairest chance for safety:
If with our present counselors we fail,
Then with their opposites we might succeed.

Aristophanes (446 –380 BC)

Translated by John Hookman Frere (1769-1846)

At PMA’s town hall meeting on the Salmonella Saintpaul crisis, one would have to say that the tone of the questions indicates that much of the audience felt little had changed since the spinach crisis of 2006.

On the broad issue of CDC and FDA, there is broad consensus that they are not doing the job. The dispute is over why.

Many in the industry see incompetence and hostility to business — they want reform. Many in the food safety community see the CDC and FDA as having been starved of funds during the administration of President George W. Bush. They see the inept behavior of these agencies as a consequence of this funding shortage and a generalized hostility to regulation by President Bush. They look to an Obama administration as certain to fund the CDC and FDA robustly, assist the state health laboratories and, in general, support public health.

We wonder if they aren’t too optimistic, regardless of our next President’s predilections. Since World War II, the most salient fact about the Federal budget is that a larger and larger percentage of the budget has gone for various entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. There are disputes about exactly how to calculate these things but, roughly speaking, entitlements overall have grown from a quarter of the federal budget during Eisenhower’s terms to about 65% today. Add in the military, interest on the national debt and other unavoidable or difficult-to-reduce expenditures and you see that any President and any political party is likely to be constrained by budgetary reality.

So it is that the population can find itself shifting its allegiance back and forth between parties, yet never having its will effectuated. Or maybe politics is wiser than that. Although at a time of outbreak it seems worthwhile to add resources to solve food safety problems, in the calm days of budget planning, it is recognized that so few get seriously injured from consuming fresh produce that budget allocations to deal with the “problem” are abandoned each time.

In the Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, which Joseph Papp revived in a production in which Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith and Kevin Klein starred, a character sings a song explaining that he has all the qualities needed to be a Modern Major-General. Among the accomplishments that qualify him are that he “knows the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes.”

Such useless knowledge — the chant repeats endlessly as follows: Brecece·cecs? cò·acs? cò·acs? (Hellènic: Βρεκεκεκέξ κοάξ κοάξ) — may be what we are in for on food safety, as everyone declares that not one illness is acceptable, but the great trends toward entitlement-spending leave the budget pretty much as is, under whatever administration we may have.

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