If there is a law of public policy effectiveness, it is that structure and function are co-dependent variables. What this means in plain English is that large organizations can do well only what they were designed to do in the first place. If the environment changes but the structure of an organization does not, then the organization will inevitably fail to produce the outcomes for which it exists. Eventually, the people who depend on, are affected by, and pay for those outcomes will notice the problem and press the appropriate authorities to fix it.
Most often, those authorities will seek to address concerns first through administrative actions—changes in regulations, responsibilities within the organization and budget levels. They will steer away from changes in the substance of underlying law, and, most important, they will avoid altering the structure of the organization itself. Those changes are far more challenging, both conceptually and politically, and they invite outside forces to the table. Palliative fixes usually don’t work for long, however, and the problems recur.
This general narrative of bureaucratic inertia distills perfectly into the story of America’s food safety system today. The environment has changed radically, but the substance of the law and structure of the system have not. Tinkerers have tweaked policies and budgets but left alone the real problems, which have grown larger with every new outbreak of E. coli or Salmonella.
Congress is now close to completing a major reform of the food safety provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The House passed a bill in July 2009, and the Senate is due, as of this writing, to act within the next few weeks. The bill under consideration is important but limited in its ambitions. It does nothing to improve the safety of meat and poultry products, which are inherently high-risk foods, and it does nothing to rationalize the chaotic food safety organizational structure. As a result, the money we allocate for food safety will not be used as effectively as it could be, communication and coordination will remain scattered, special interest lobbies will be able to focus their efforts more effectively, and the feudal organization of both the Executive and Legislative pieces of the system will continue to reinforce each other. Predicting the result of this is simple: More people will get sick and die from diseases that are almost entirely preventable.
Figuring out how to fix the problem requires some understanding of the Byzantine muddle of law and structure that we call a food safety system. What follows is a primer on the problem.What Has Changed
We presume that a scientifically and technologically advanced society will figure out how to...