Steve Chapman

There have been a lot of unsurprising news stories lately. Rod Blagojevich going on TV. Tiger Woods and his wife divorcing. The economy racing along like an elderly tortoise. And the Food and Drug Administration saying the salmonella outbreak proves the agency needs more power.

We should have seen that coming. In the private sector, entities that fall short of doing their jobs find themselves forced to shrink. In the public sector, the opposite is typically true. Failure is an option, and often a beneficial one.

The Federal Reserve Board and Treasury facilitated the 2008 financial crisis? Then obviously we have no choice but to give them even more responsibility. The Securities and Exchange Commission let Bernie Madoff rob investors? A bigger SEC will be a smarter SEC.

Just once, I'd like to see a government official say, "We blew it, and you know what? If you give us another chance, we'll probably blow it again." But so far, my hope has not availed.

It's true that the FDA is charged with assuring food safety. But really, the government can't do that. The task is too big and too complex. Fortunately, it doesn't have to do it, because the pressures of competition force producers to make sure their goods are clean and wholesome.

What goes curiously unnoticed is that egg suppliers and grocery stores have nothing to gain from sickening their customers -- and a lot to lose. It doesn't take many obvious hygiene lapses for a company to get a bad reputation, and a bad reputation can be catastrophic.

In 1971, a New York man died of botulism after eating a can of Bon Vivant soup. If you've never heard of Bon Vivant soup, there's a simple explanation: In no time at all, the company was bankrupt and the brand was as defunct as William McKinley.

The farms implicated in this episode are likely to find themselves oddly short of buyers in the coming months, if not years -- unless they can prove they have taken drastic steps to clean up their act. But the burden of proof will be on them.

They can also expect to be sued for huge sums of money. Meanwhile, there are plenty of other companies that didn't screw up, whose wares will be more attractive going forward.

Most consumers, however, accept the possibility of getting salmonella as a fact of life. Each year in the United States, there are nearly 175,000 cases of food poisoning caused by this sort of contamination in eggs.

But that's less than it sounds, and in recent years, the problem has steadily declined. Experts estimate that in normal times, the incidence of salmonella is about one in every 10,000 eggs, which means the average person can expect to eat one about once every 40 years.

Even without a federal recall in this outbreak, fewer than one in every 100 eggs would be tainted. It's a level of risk that doesn't cry out for new legions of federal bureaucrats to gallop to the rescue.

Also worth keeping in mind is that the rare encounter with a bad egg need not be unpleasant. For years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has advised consumers to cook all eggs thoroughly and avoid foods (Hollandaise sauce, homemade mayonnaise, Caesar salad dressing) that use raw eggs. Follow those instructions, and you are exempt from harm. Skip them, and you're still pretty safe.

Those consumers who want to be extra-vigilant have another option: pasteurized eggs, in or out of the shell. Widely available in grocery stores, they can be eaten undercooked or raw with impunity.

Most people, however, don't see the need to go an extra mile to eliminate a hazard that is already so small as to be invisible. Why should Washington try to impose a level of safety that buyers can already select for themselves if they feel the need?

Given the chance, the market offers options. Some people would prefer slightly lower prices and a slightly higher risk. Some would pay more to get greater peace of mind. Stricter federal rules may eliminate choices that some competent adults would prefer.

A moment of alarm, however, can be used to justify legislation that may impose unseen costs without solving the problem. That's reason to question any new powers sought by regulators. Granting those powers is as easy as scrambling an egg. Unscrambling is a lot harder.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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