Last Thursday, front-page stories trumpeted the Bush administration's decision to end mandatory testing for salmonella in hamburger meat served in federal school lunch programs.
Such was the outpouring of indignation and incredulity that, before the day was out, the decision was reversed and blamed on -- who else? -- a subordinate at the Department of Agriculture. "Somebody made a mistake," said department spokesman Kevin Herglotz.
But even in the incredibly unlikely event that it was just "a mistake" (and if you believe that, I've got some uninspected hamburger meat to sell you), it was a revealing one -- completely in keeping with this administration's ethos that perceives all environmental and public health regulations as government coercion interfering with the free market. Why else would you even consider abandoning a policy that has led to a 50 percent drop in salmonella contamination since it was implemented in June?
Well, there is one other reason: intense lobbying by the meat industry to ditch the testing -- even though salmonella causes 1.4 million illnesses and 600 deaths a year. The industry's business-friendly alternative included irradiating the beef to kill the bacteria -- which would have put a whole new spin on cafeteria "mystery meat." Today's special: Nuke Burgers and Toxic Joes.
What made the timing of the salmonella decision particularly surreal is that the world has never been more conscious of -- not to mention frightened out of its mind about -- the safety of its meat. As Howard Lyman, author of an alarming book on the beef industry, told me: "The administration's policy on removing salmonella testing makes it apparent that mad cow disease has set in among the bureaucrats in Washington."
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman is showing signs of the malady. Consider how she described her department's decision-making criteria: "These types of policies should be based on common sense, sound science and include the participation of all aspects of the food chain." Is she suggesting we consult with the salmonella bacteria themselves? My guess is that they're anti-testing and pro-intestinal cramping.
Or maybe this is a way for Bush to simultaneously honor his commitment to education and his desire to roll back troublesome federal regulations: combine science class with a free-market lunch. But look out for that take-home test, it's a killer: Eat lunch, get violently ill for days on end, then write a report on the experience. "What I Did While Sprawled on My Bathroom Floor." Did I mention it's also a great weight-loss program? That means we can cut physical education programs, too.
This salmonella dust-up comes on the heels of a spate of environmentally hostile initiatives: reneging on a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions; rescinding the rule that lowered allowable levels of arsenic in drinking water (announced, appropriately enough, during National Poison Prevention Week); delaying implementation of regulations to protect the last untouched 30 percent of our national forests; repealing the requirement that mining companies pay for clean-ups of the public lands they have mined; delivering a death blow to the Kyoto global warming treaty; and advocating nuclear power as a "clean energy source."
Many of these moves were made in the name of the economy in general, and the energy crisis in particular. So it is ironic that the budget Bush sent to Congress on Monday contains a $180 million cut in funds for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs -- with some initiatives facing 40 percent cuts. What's more, the new budget targets the Environmental Protection Agency, that hotbed of federal regulations, for a $500 million cut.
For the true believers, dismantling regulations is more than a call of duty to the bottom line -- it's a call of duty to liberty and unfettered individualism. The problem is, one person's liberty is another person's polluted water and sick child. And these anti-environmental zealots are now going to be directing policy inside the administration -- not just influencing it from think tanks and ivory towers.
Take Lynn Scarlett. Before being tapped by Bush for assistant secretary at the Department of the Interior, she was CEO of the Reason Foundation and had described environmental regulations as a form of "Green punishment."
Or John Graham, named to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs after a heroic career fighting public health and safety rules. As head of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, he argued against the EPA's efforts to regulate dioxin, pesticides, radon, secondhand tobacco smoke and asbestos. His arguments have invariably been based on a perverse cost-benefit analysis that "proves" that everything that is bad for you is actually good.
The Bush team, however, has massively miscalculated the public's response to its attack on regulations and the environment. A top White House official, for example, had predicted that the CO2 flip-flop would be a 24-hour story.
"The remarkable thing about all of these rollbacks," says Todd True of Earthjustice, "is that the public supports protecting the environment. It seems like the administration is hell-bent on picking a fight with the American people. And I think they are going to get one."
For the moment, the White House seems unfazed: Let them eat tainted beef and wash it down with arsenic-laced water. It's good for business and liberty. But this righteous stance is making the body politic sick and threatens to spoil Bush's assiduously cultivated centrist image -- kind of like an undetected strain of salmonella lurking inside your kid's appetizing school lunch.