Snakes in the grass

Wouldn't you think that by now we would all react to the word "deregulation" the same way we do when we hear the buzz of a rattlesnake?

Freeze, spot it, then run like hell.
'Cause we sure have been snake-bit by deregulation in this country.
Deregulating the savings and loans was enough to put me on permanent alert, but it doesn't seem to have impressed the Republicans a whit. They're just deregulatin' fools.

They're about to deregulate toxic chemicals, dangerous drugs, and rotten food, for starters. Using the Upton Sinclair model, let's consider food first.

Sinclair's turn-of-the-century novel The Jungle--about the revolting conditions in meat-packing plants--touched off a storm of protest that resulted in the formation of the Food and Drug Administration. Sinclair observed, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident, I hit it in the stomach."

No one since has questioned the responsibility of government to see to it that the food that appears on our tables won't kill us or even make us vilely ill. That is, not until the deregulatin'-fool Republicans came along.

One of the curiosities of safe-food regulation is that the original source of the whole reform movement--rotten meat--is still inspected by horse-and-buggy standards. Federal meat inspectors, notoriously understaffed, still poke and smell meat to see if they can spot rot. The result is that 4,000 people die every year in this country, and 5 million people become ill from contaminated meat. Ever had food poisoning? Remember how it felt?

Anyone who has ever traveled in countries where the government cannot afford to inspect meat at all can tell you that the situation would be much worse without regulation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture now proposes to use modern, scientific techniques to cut down on food poisoning by using microbial testing. The plan was to go into effect next year, but the Republicans are moving to either drop or postpone the new standards.

Why? Because some small meat-packing businesses fear that the new inspection method would drive them out of business--or at least cost them a lot of money. Their money, our lives.

The Republican assault on food-safety standards has drawn little attention because the measures are scattered around in several different bills rather than lumped into one package, where we could see the effects clearly.

Among the proposals:
* A regulation to improve the testing of seafood by the end of the year would either be stopped or postponed several years.

* The Delaney Clause, which forbids adding even the slightest trace of any known carcinogen to food, would be repealed. "Slightest trace" may sound like a high standard, but carcinogens tend to be cumulative--that is, they stay in the body, and each trace gets added to the next until cancer is touched off.

* Pesticides that are considered probable human carcinogens could continue to be used. The Environmental Protection Agency has been in the process of removing them from the market.

* The FDA's plan to regulate the packaging of iron supplements, the leading cause of poisoning of children, would be dropped or delayed several years.

Why, you may ask, would anyone be opposed to regulations that clearly save lives?

The Republican justification for heinous measures comes packaged in the usual flummery. "It is clear that the American people are fed up with a regulatory state that is out of control," said Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. "The bill simply asks that agencies use common sense to avoid unnecessary costs when pursuing important goals such as health and safety."

Well, not quite so simply as all that. Take a close look at what's coming up in the Dole-Johnson Comprehensive Regulatory Reform Act. We find that it is not so much the American people crying for regulatory relief as it is lobbyists for utilities, Georgia-Pacific Corp., the cement kiln industry, etc.

Senator Orrin Hatch allowed utility lawyers from the firm Hunton and Williams to conduct a briefing for Judiciary Committee staff members about the contents of the bill, leading to an ethics complaint against Hatch. A Hunton and Williams partner with years of experience lobbying on behalf of electric utilities participated in the briefing. Later, the American Bar Association removed him from the chairmanship of an ABA regulatory reform task force; the ABA president said there was a conflict of interest between his task force role and his work for clients.

The New York Times revealed how a specific provision in the bill was drafted by Georgia-Pacific to head off an ongoing enforcement action against more than 20 of its facilities for Clean Air Act violations. The bill's legislative history is tainted as well; the Judiciary Committee sent it to the floor with no committee vote or debate--an unprecedented action.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

Federal meat inspectors, notoriously understaffed, still poke and smell meat to see if they can spot rot.

The deregulatin'-fool Republicans have come along again.

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Molly Ivins