Under the current administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), created by President Richard Nixon, has proposed and/or completed the rollback of many federal regulations initiated to protect health. Under one such action, EPA noted that the revised regulation would cause some 1,400 additional deaths and as many as 100,000 illnesses, along with millions of dollars in lost work and school time. Regulatory rollback or elimination has become something of a mantra for conservatives who rail against government interference, thrumming the voices of proponents into a raging frenzy.
It’s likely true that most of us rarely think about the existence of such regulations, or appreciate their function in everyday life. This nonchalance was batted out of the park after reading a recent book review in The New York Times (October 21, 2018). The excerpt that follows powerfully penetrated that sleep-like perception:
In 1906, the United States was the only major industrialized nation without strict laws forbidding the sale of contaminated and adulterated food. In their absence, the free market made it profitable to supply a wide range of unappetizing fare. Ground-up insects were sold as brown sugar. Children’s candy was routinely colored with lead and other heavy metals. Beef hearts and other organ meats were processed, canned and labeled as chicken. Perhaps one-third of the butter for sale wasn’t really butter but rather all sorts of other things—beef tallow, pork fat, the ground-up stomachs of cows and sheep—transformed into a yellowish substance that looked like butter.
Historians have long credited the unlikely alliance of [Theodore] Roosevelt and [Upton] Sinclair for passage of the Meat Inspection and the Pure Food and Drug acts of 1906.… The deliberate adulteration of food had been a problem for millieniums, inspiring government regulations in Egypt, Sumeria and Rome. By the late 1870s, the Industrial Revolution, applied to food processing, provided a variety of new techniques and ingredients useful for committing fraud—artificial flavors, artificial colorings, chemical preservatives.
The book review (by Eric Schlosser) is of a history, The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Deborah Blum. Like a protagonist, chemist Harvey Washington Wiley passionately pursued his goals for 30 years as chief scientist of the USDA.
The National Food Processors Association and other industry groups were not pleased, to say the least. The adulteration of food had become so brazen that manufacturers openly advertised products like “mineraline,” “fluorine,” and Freezine that either substituted for real ingredients, or disguised the presence of spoilage. Freezine contained formaldehyde, an ingredient in embalming fluid, that was toxic and commonly mixed with rancid milk. For his efforts on behalf of food safety and integrity, Wiley was described in one trade journal as “the man who is doing all he can to destroy American business.” [emphasis added]
It would be difficult to imagine a world, a society without the protections of rules, regulations, and laws established to ensure health and safety. In 1916, the legal establishment entered the picture in creating an additional factor in consumer protection in the case of MacPherson v. Buick, a New York decision from its Court of Appeals holding the automaker liable for selling a car with a defective wheel causing injury to its owner. Both government and lawyers contributed to stemming the mayhem facing consumers from the products and processes of industrialism. In an analogous area, worker and workplace safety, including child labor and workers’ compensation laws, were spawned following the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, completing a triad of protections for consumers and workers all, in turn, necessitated by the Industrial Revolution.
The frenzy of business interests in eliminating regulatory protections in today’s climate seems to have abated little from the early 1900s. At present, opponents echo the same refrain that regulations and lawsuits slow business growth, increase costs, depress profits, and are burdensome. None are the least bit inhibited by the fact that more deaths, thousands of illnesses, and depressed productivity result from rollbacks and elimination. The more things change, the more they remain the same.