JONATHAN COHN AUGUST 30, 2010
Who is responsible for an outbreak of salmonella that's sickened 1,500 people and led to the recall of a half-billion eggs? Last week, I suggested that a significant portion of the blame belongs with the administration of George W. Bush--which was, in turn, channeling the anti-regulatory zeal of the Bush Administration.
Tevi Troy held several positions in the Bush Administration, culminating in the two years he spent as deputy secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services. In other words, he's familiar with these issues and what was going on behind the scenes. He also thinks I'm wrong.
I know Tevi and respect him. That doesn't mean I agree with him. But it does mean I think you should take his arguments seriously.
Here's what he said:
I am not sure that it is fair, almost two years into the Obama administration, and 21 years after the end of the Reagan administration, to blame Bush and Reagan for the current salmonella outbreak.
With respect to Reagan, his “forcing agencies to submit all regulations to the Office of Management and Budget" was an attempt to start standardizing the use of cost benefit analysis, which is a respected and not radical regulatory tool.
As for the Bush administration, both Bush and HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt were very serious about food safety, and Les Crawford's premature departure did not have the effect of "stalling progress until 2009.” Bush put together an Import Safety Working Group, chaired by Secretary Leavitt, which issued a consequential report for addressing the issue of food safety and import safety more generally.
This brings us to Jon’s assertion that the egg safety rule would have prevented the outbreak had it been promulgated sooner. First, I served at both the White House and at HHS, and the rule was not held up because of the White House, but because it had problems with its economic analysis. I certainly never heard anyone suggest that there needed to be more "bodies in the street" for the rule to proceed.
Furthermore, according to this USA Today story by Alison Young, a key problem in this instance seems to have been that CDC and FDA knew about the problem for nearly two weeks before the recall took place.
The article, citing Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest states that "there was an excessive delay by the FDA in contacting the company." According to DeWaal, FDA's explanation of the delay was "a fairly bureaucratic excuse."
Rules are only one part of the picture. At the Leavitt report found, efficient interagency operation and communication are the keys to fighting food-borne illnesses.