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Letter From The Editor: “The Blob” in 2012

The 1958 science fiction movie “The Blob” remains a classic because it introduced the great Steve McQueen in a leading role.

Probably because the horror flick about a giant amoeba-like space alien landing in Pennsylvania continues to entertain audiences on our many movie channels, an academic debate of sorts comes and goes.

“What did the Blob represent?”

Given the era, most say the Blob represented World Communism, which seemed mighty threatening in 1958, but now not so much. We probably need to update our thoughts about what “the Blob” represents.

I’d like to nominee federal government bureaucracy. “The Blob” was not a very effective force, yet it seeped into every corner and crevice of the Pennsylvania town saved by McQueen, later known as the “King of Cool,” who figures out the Blob cannot handle extreme cold.

Just as “The Blob” was foreign to the mid-20th Century, our federal government bureaucracy seems pretty alien to the 21st century. If we were to start from scratch, we would not design the federal bureaucracy as it exists today. No, we’d make the reality like it is now in the movies and on TV.

On the screen, we always see federal agents working in small teams that communicate seamlessly and move swiftly as if all feds have G-5 jets at their disposal. All problems are solved in a hour or 90 minutes. Even Contagion took only 106 minutes.

Reality is something entirely different. Problems the federal government bureaucracy encounters may or may not be solved, are dealt with on a sort of glacial time. Only lip service is paid to transparency, the real decision-making goes on inside the black box.

There is one redeeming aspect to “The Blob,” once something sticks to the agenda of our federal bureaucracy, something eventually is going to happen to it.

At the moment, I think there are four such food safety issues that have confronted “The Blob” and it is going to be impossible for the federal bureaucracy to ignore them in 2013.

One of the four food safety issues has been around for the past year when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was required to file regulations implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act with the Executive Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the White House.

OMB, on behalf of the President, gets final sign-off on federal regulations, and many suspect the White House sat on as many regulations as it could during the election year. With Obama’s re-election, activists are getting restless. The Center for Food Safety and Center on Environmental Health have gone to federal court over the rule-making timing.

The big worry is FDA falling behind and never catching up. In addition to food safety regulations already in the works, it has nine more regulations to do in 2013. Activists want a federal judge to order the FSMA enforced a.s.a.p.

The three other issues that must be priorities for food safety agencies are:

1. Safety of foreign meat.
2. Safety of fresh produce.
3. Safety of high-risk food processing plants.

Oh, did I say that these are subjects of investigative reporting exclusively by Food Safety News since Nov. 1? This is true, and if you have not been paying attention, let be briefly recap.

1. Safety of foreign meat – Food Safety News reported on Nov. 1 of the dramatic decline in USDA inspections of foreign meat inspection systems. USDA foreign inspection teams have the responsibility of determining if the approximately 35 countries exporting meat to the U.S. are maintaining equivalent food safety systems to our own.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), ranking member of the subcommittee holding USDA purse-strings, is demanding answers from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about the 60 percent cutbacks in oversight of foreign meat.

2. Safety of fresh produceFood Safety News reported on Nov. 13 that USDA in the process of “an orderly shutdown” of the Microbiological Data Program by Dec. 31, thereby ending 80 percent of pathogen testing for produce.

Operated by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, MDP is being shut down after the Obama Administration did not ask for money to continue it, and Congress opted to zero out its funding.

Costing only $4.5 million a year, MDP operated through state labs, which since 2001 pulled produce samples at the retail testing for pathogens. MDP was the only surveillance testing for produce.

3. High-risk food processing plants – The closest peanut processing plant to Plainview, TX—location of one of the two troubled facilities owned by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA)—is the Sunland Inc. plant in Portales, NM. The now defunct PCA plant and Sunland are less than 100 miles apart.

Back in the day, PCA purchased peanuts from Sunland. Yet, Food Safety News reported on Nov. 14 that Sunland had a long history of Salmonella problems of its own dating back to 2003 that apparently got no special attention from FDA after PCA’s deadly Salmonella outbreak of 2008-09.  And Sunland operated non-step until another Salmonella outbreak was associated with its facility. (The outbreaks involved different strains of Salmonella.)

Kudos: To Food Safety New writers Helena Bottemiller and Gretchen Goetz for the writing and editing along with James Andrews who executed federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

© Food Safety News
  • farmber

    Federal Bureaucracy? How tiresome. Obviously The Blob was a warning about Corporate Personhood — much more chillingly depicted as the Borg in Star Trek…….

  • Though I agree there are outstanding food safety issues (and seriously, what is the delay on FSMA) I want to push back on your picture of a monolithic federal government, completely bogged down by bureaucracy. 

    Is the USDA hindered by its size? The many levels of management? Could be, though the agency is actually quite lean. The FDA less so, but again, the problem is less innate bureaucracy, and more something else.  

    What hinders these agencies more is, well, you and me. 

    We vote for idiots who spend most of their time calling committees and demanding that the USDA/FDA/EPA/etc. answer this question or that. 

    The same idiots also listen to constituents (primarily before an election) who have fallen afoul of the USDA/FDA/EPA/etc., and who want special consideration and treatment for their violations (or because Small Government, good, Big Government, bad).

    Then there’s the think tanks and what not that sue agencies like the USDA at the drop of a hat. There’s one think tank that recently sued NASA, the EPA (twice), and half a dozen other agencies–all in the last three months. One of the lawsuits was based on hearsay from a guy selling a book who was told by ‘unidentified people on the inside’ that the EPA’s Lisa Jackson uses an email account with an email alias. 
    What’s the proof? A story in Daily Caller. 

    Yeah, that’s reputable proof. 

    Let’s not stop there…

    Judges at state and federal level contradict each other and the law in order to decide this way or that on any one case, leaving each agency a minefield of legal decisions it has to maneuver around. That’s in addition to trying to make sense out of the laws and the various modifications and amendments to laws that leave tattered fragments each agency has to try to pummel into something that can be enforced.

    Then there’s the journalists. I agree with you: your Food Safety News writers have done an exemplary job and should be commended. Not all journalists are so commendable. 
    When these less knowledgeable  more ratings-interested journalists are not demanding immediate information about facts that may or may not exist, they’re bolstering the claims of the biased, the wacky, and the self-serving. All while this is going on, each agency exists under an extremely bright light, not to mention performing under immense pressure from the top of government, all the way down to an individual state inspector in Iowa.  And a river of FOIAs flows. To make this story even better, most agencies are expected to do more, with less money. So when you break out the popcorn to watch The Blob again, look quick: the face you see looking out from the gelatinous mess may look remarkably similar to your own.