Politico

Eat Your Spinach — If You Dare


From the war in Ukraine to the fallout of the Jan. 6 riots, contemporary politics is animated by a large question: Do free societies have a future in an age of tribalism, contempt, disinformation, violence?

But the politics of the moment can also be illuminated by small questions: Do you eat fresh spinach? Are you confident it won’t make you very sick?

Awareness that this confidence might be misplaced comes courtesy of my POLITICO colleague, Helena Bottemiller Evich. She is among the nation’s foremost journalists on food policy. She recently published the results of her monthslong, breathtakingly thorough inquiry into systemic failures by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to fulfill its mandate to ensure the safety of what we eat.

Contaminated spinach last fall made people sick in 10 states, and sent three people into kidney failure, but the agency reacted too slowly to get to the bottom of it. There was no recall. That was just one of many examples in recent years of foods that sound like the diet of a healthy eater but instead sent hundreds of people to the hospital or the morgue: Romaine lettuce contaminated by E.coli bacteria, cucumbers tainted by salmonella, cantaloupes infected with listeria. And so on, with such regularity that many outbreaks no longer even make much news.

The comparatively small question (perhaps not so small if you are the one hunched over the toilet) — Is the FDA doing its job?— is connected in a fairly linear way to the large question that always roils politics: What is the proper size and scope of government? One doesn’t have to squint too hard into this story to see an even bigger question: What is the difference between a liberal democracy like the United States and an authoritarian state like Russia or China?

The difference is that in authoritarian systems there are not journalists like Bottemiller Evich, and people usually don’t ever learn who is getting sick from what and why. But one should not feel too triumphal about this. The reality is that even in this country the muscles of accountability, as exercised by elected representatives and news media, are more atrophied than most people probably realize: The POLITICO story highlighted failures that stretch back decades, with scant publicity and even more scant attention from Congress.

From an ideological perspective, it would be more comfortable for progressives if the problems illuminated by Bottemiller Evich were the result of Trump administration vandalism or incompetence. There is a slice of that in her reporting. But it is clear the larger problem — “this anemic, slow response [that] is typical for an agency that oversees nearly 80 percent of the American food supply” — has structural dimensions, which include Obama-era bureaucratic dysfunction. And administrations before that, too.

In fact, the story should be acutely uncomfortable for believers in activist government. A right-wing free marketeer would read the piece with feelings of vindication: Of course, government can’t work as intended. Liberals, who believe that government can protect the public interest and vulnerable individuals in ways the private sector will never do, have a much greater stake in exposing government failures so they can be remedied.

At the same time, the troubles at FDA make one wonder whether there genuinely are many free-market conservatives — once the argument moves from philosophical abstraction to real life. Let’s find someone, anyone, who thinks it is the job of local government or companies regulating themselves, to ensure the safety of infant formula when it is their child or grandchild who is drinking the stuff.

Recent weeks brought a massive recall of infant formula. Four hospitalizations and two deaths have been linked to an Abbott Nutrition plant in Sturgis, Mich., which makes Similac, the most popular brand on the market and other formulas distributed across the globe. The FDA is investigating. But POLITICO’s reporting has so far found that it took the agency months to act from when the first infant hospitalization was reported.

As explained by many sources, including former top FDA officials, one root cause of problems is likely the structure of FDA, which is dominated by its pharmaceuticals mission, to the neglect of food-safety and nutrition responsibilities. Some veterans advocate dividing the organization and creating a new food agency. By coincidence, another damaging FDA story came this week in the New York Times, which highlighted apparent conflicts as the McKinsey consulting firm was simultaneously advising drug companies seeking regulatory approval and the FDA itself.

At a time when the work of journalists is under more scrutiny than ever, and the profession itself is undergoing constant upheaval and reinvention, it is worth reflecting on the example of Bottemiller Evich. She’s been covering food policy since 2009, and has been a leader of POLITICO’s agriculture vertical since 2013.

John F. Kennedy once said to his friend John Kenneth Galbraith, who began his storied career as an agricultural economist: “I don’t want to hear about agriculture from anyone but you, Ken. And I don’t want much to hear about it from you, either.”

In truth, the issues around agriculture and food are fascinating when handled by an authoritative narrator. Over the years, Bottemiller Evich has won such prizes as the prestigious George Polk award for her work on food, nutrition and the linkages between agriculture policy and climate change. She has the kind of mastery that only comes from years on the beat. And she reaps the kind of rewards in agenda-setting impact that can’t be earned on cable television sets or long hours on Twitter.

Her reporting reminds me of the sermons of one of the great 20th century journalists, Charles Peters, the founder of the Washington Monthly. Part of his self-described “gospel” was that journalists even then — at a time when there were more beat reporters focused on the work of government than now — paid too much attention to surface political arguments. The way to understand government — how it works and how it could work better — was to report deeply on institutional culture and the real-world consequences of programs. A proud liberal, Peters, still with us at age 95, evangelized that believers in government had a special duty to explore the gap between policies in theory and in practice.

That’s worth pondering as you eat your leafy greens, perhaps with a bit less complacency than before reading Bottemiller Evich’s story. Her report wasn’t solely about the work of FDA — it was about the work of democracy.

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