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Essential government tasks need reliable funding

Opinion column

Here's hoping that Stewart Parnell goes to prison.

The former president of the now-bankrupt Peanut Corp. of America, Parnell ran a filthy Georgia processing plant contaminated with salmonella that injured more than 600 people in a 2008-2009 outbreak, killing nine. Last month, federal prosecutors charged Parnell and three others with criminal offenses, claiming the executives intentionally shipped out contaminated peanut products.

It's about time that white-collar criminals whose actions result in death or horrible injuries have to do the perp walk, just like the leeches who sell narcotics to kids. Former workers and federal inspectors say the plant, located in the small southeast Georgia town of Blakely, was a breeding ground for bacteria -- with a leaky roof, dirty floors, mold on the ceiling and walls, and rats and roaches everywhere.

Still, it's not enough to know that Parnell is finally going before the bar of justice. I also want a vigorous and assertive government that will help ensure that plants like Parnell's Blakely facility won't be free to operate in the future.

With President Obama battling Republicans over government spending, it's easy to forget the important functions that federal agencies carry on every day. The Washington commentariat has concluded the agreement -- known as "sequestration" -- that produced shortsighted budget cuts hasn't caused any harm to the majority of Americans, an indication, in that view, that Obama oversold the consequences of the cuts.

Is that true? The fact is we may never know how much harm will be done by those cuts. We don't know how many children will miss their vaccinations, how many Head Start teachers will be laid off, or how many food inspections will be skipped.

The line between cause and effect is especially hard to draw in the work of those federal agencies whose jobs are aimed at prevention. The inspectors at the Food and Drug Administration have done their jobs well when you don't hear of a food-borne illness or a faulty medical product. That sort of work is essential, but its results are hard to measure. And it never attracts public attention of the sort that ensures big budgets.

After the Blakely fiasco, Congress passed laws beefing up the powers given to the FDA. The agency used that new authority to shut down a New Mexico peanut processing plant that was implicated in a 2012 salmonella outbreak.

That decision came after the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (another federally funded agency) and state and local health departments tracked the outbreak to that specific plant, run by Sunland Inc. That outbreak sickened dozens.

I don't know -- and neither do you -- whether the CDC will continue to have all the resources it needs to track deadly diseases with the across-the-board spending cuts dictated by GOP intransigence. I don't know whether the Consumer Protection Agency will be able to track down all the lead-tinged toys coming in from China. I don't know whether the FDA will be able to shut down the next Sunland before hundreds are hurt.

But I do know this: When I fix my 4-year-old a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, I should not have to worry about whether she'll get food poisoning. When you buy peanut butter crackers from a convenience store to placate your growling tummy on a road trip, you shouldn't fear that eating them will send you to an emergency room.

Those are routine securities that we take for granted because we live in an affluent, developed nation with government regulations for food safety. However, those protections cost money. They don't come free.

I've eaten in countries where there were no pesky government regulations keeping the milk pasteurized and the water free of parasites and the cooked meat free of harmful bacteria. I'll take more government -- with its higher costs -- any day.

Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at cynthiacynthiatucker.com.

Comments

revolutionnow 1 year, 6 months ago

How many FDA inspectors could work for a year for the cost of one of the first ladys trips?

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