A month ago the invisible hand of the marketplace became very visible to over 400 customers of Jack in the Box hamburgers in the Seattle area. Two children have died and about 50 are in agonizing condition. The invisible hand dealt these people E. Coli — a bacteria that can become deadly when suppliers of contaminated meat sell retailers the product which then is cooked at inadequate temperatures.
The deterioration of meat and poultry inspection by the federal government has not been happenstance. It was the result of a premeditated policy of de-regulation by the Reagan Administration that began in 1981. Meat inspectors who retired or resigned were not replaced. By 1992 over 550 of these inspector slots were not filled. A General Accounting Office (GAO) study at that time cited the shortage of inspectors as one reason behind health violations found in the plants.
Inspectors who were trying to do their job received calls from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s meat and poultry inspection. Frequently, the meat processing plants, who liked the USDA stamp of approval on their products, did not like inspectors who stopped the production line and condemned diseased, adulterated or dirty meat. The company officials would call their friends in the USDA to reprimand the inspectors.
“Those who make waves on behalf of consumers face vicious retaliation,” including harassment and career stagnation said veteran inspector, John Coplin in the early Eighties.
Talk to inspectors on the line, as we have over two decades, and you hear about speedup. The meat and poultry industry has been prodding USDA for years to allow speedier production lines. Under Reagan, they got more of what they wanted. The pressure on inspectors is so intense that what they try to see becomes a blur of motion as the carcasses go by. In poultry plants nearly 100 chickens a minute zip by.
How many times did you hear Reagan urge deregulation, urge getting government off the backs of business? Well, as he would say, the chickens have come home to roost.
You can be spared the disgusting descriptions of some of the worst meat plants — the pus infections, the filth, the vermin and rodents. Nor does a vegetarian, animal rights advocate or environmentalist need to parade the arguments against the cruelty and waste of grain and water to produce beef cattle and their manure runoffs from the giant feedlots.
The meat industry if already reeling from the critiques of nutritionists favoring a low fat diet. Red meat consumption per capita in America has been steadily declining. The last thing the meat companies need is to continue their demand for less continuous inspection and weaker regulatory enforcement. Consumer confidence takes a long time to recover from the types of tragedies that occurred at Jack in the Box.
Under Reagan, public access to information about “serious violators” was denied. Chronic violators were not identified publically as they were under Carter. Without access to meat inspection reports on specifically named plants, it is doubtful whether we could have informed the public to press Congress to strengthen the meat safety law in 1967.
There is much debate in both government, industry and consumer circles regarding the best quality control methods, the best inspection technologies to use and the degree of constant surveillance necessary at the plants. But the health and safety of the consumers must be the guiding premise of these deliberations, not the heavy hand of rigid deregulatory dogma. E. Coli needs the steady eye of detection, not an invisible hand that waves it on toward your dinner plate.