Think the Obama administration has been strangling businesses with red tape?
Well, that’s a load of chicken droppings.
Those who say we’re being regulated into a state of European socialism might wish to consult with some of the federal poultry inspectors who assembled Monday morning outside the Agriculture Department. They were protesting a proposal to allow chicken slaughterhouses to inspect themselves — eliminating those pesky federal monitors who have the annoying habit of taking diseased birds out of the food supply.
Among the hundred or so picketers at the union-organized protest were two men in six-foot-tall chicken costumes and a guy carrying a rubber chicken that squawked when its belly was squeezed. They wielded signs demanding “Don’t play chicken with food safety” and “Don’t let the fox guard my chicken.” They chanted along as a man shouted into a bullhorn: “We don’t want no funky chicken.” The rubber chicken squawked in time.
“I don’t think the consumers want their chickens to be inspected by the companies that produce them,” said poultry inspector Stan Painter, who came from Alabama for the protest and led marchers by beating a drum with a pair of drumsticks (the wooden variety, not chicken legs).
The loss of federal food safety inspectors — coming just after a controversy over a beef producer’s use of a meat filler known as pink slime — sounds about as palatable as a salmonella sandwich. But USDA officials say there’s no reason to get queasy: The inspectors will be shifted to other tasks — microbiological testing and the like — that would reduce food-borne illness.
“It’s primarily a public health thing, and, by the way, it reduces spending,” Brian Ronholm, deputy undersecretary of agriculture for food safety, told me Monday afternoon. “There aren’t many opportunities an administration gets to achieve both goals.”
The benefit to food safety is contested, but nobody disputes that the proposal would save the poultry industry more than $500 million over three years — quite a nugget. And that’s the more important point. Whatever you think about chicken producers policing themselves, the idea is part of an Obama regulatory policy that has been rather more favorable to business than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s claims about a “regulatory tsunami.”
The Office of Management and Budget argues that the cost of new regulations in the Obama administration’s first three years was lower than the previous three years, under the George W. Bush administration. Agencies issued 886 final rules in the Obama administration’s first three years, compared with 931 in the final three Bush years. Obama officials, irking many consumer advocates and liberal watchdog groups, have delayed implementation of some new rules (including on food safety) and required federal agencies to reduce the costs of existing regulations.
That’s a small gesture compared with the pile of regulations that came with Obamacare and with the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, but lately, industry has softened its criticism. Two weeks ago, the Business Roundtable, an organization of chief executives, issued a statement hailing the administration’s “effort to enact reforms that streamline the regulatory process, engage regulated parties earlier in the process and take account of the cumulative impact of regulations.”
In truth, business doesn’t have to worry much about its place in the pecking order. Even if the Obama administration were inclined to bring down capitalism with an orgy of overregulation, there isn’t enough money in the budget to enforce the rules on the books. That’s what the chicken fight is about: Spending cuts, such as those Congress and President Obama agreed to last summer, are a form of de facto deregulation.
USDA inspector Trent Berhow, one of the demonstrators outside the Agriculture Department on Monday, said that chickens are just the canaries in the coal mine of food-safety deregulation. “If it starts in chicken, eventually it’s going to continue on into red meat, into hogs and cattle,” he said. “No doubt about that.”
John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said at Monday’s protest that he spoke with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about the change in poultry inspections. “He said it’s budget cuts — we have to do it,” Gage claimed. And he’s hearing the same justification for reduced regulations across the federal government. “We’re going to see it in the Bureau of Prisons, in Social Security, in the VA — across the board,” Gage said.
That’s not just chicken feed.
Dana Milbank’s email address is danamilbank@ washpost.com.