And just who is watching the watchers?


The regulatory bureaucracy at all levels of government provides nothing but a misplaced sense of security for consumers who need to be smarter.

The level of corruption, the amount of complicity between industry and business, the money that exchanges hands for looking the other way all make the idea of neutral government regulation of business laughable -- and no less dangerous than a theoretical system in which industry polices its own.

We live in a world of oil spills. But recall all the headlines about collusion and lack of oversight by federal regulators and drillers? We live in a world where proper sanitation practices in the food industry are not always followed. But we see routinely that industry takes part in voluntary recalls of products, sometimes for marginal reasons outside direct threats to health.

Anthony Bourdain, a very funny foodie, chef and raconteur, has traveled the world eating from street-food vendor stands in dozens of foreign nations -- those either absent regulatory mechanisms or interest in enforcing them.

He’s not dead yet. His take on it is simple and true: It’s not in the interests of the vendors to poison their customers with bad food.

It is not in the interest of purveyors of artisan, small-batch cheese to poison their customers. Yet the FDA this week panicked the entire industry by nixing the use of wood planks for aging cheese. That it’s been done that way for thousands of years in Europe and elsewhere apparently is moot. That it’s still being done that way (and will almost assuredly continue to be so) in Europe apparently is moot. That there’s no rigorous scientific or legal standing to back the FDA official’s position is, again, apparently moot.

Also moot: The desire of consumers who would seek out such products as an alternative to "pasteurized, processed cheese food." Mmmmm. ... that’s grotesque eatin’, there.

This story would be different if government, its regulatory arms, industries and lobbyists weren’t engaged in such smarmy bedhopping that the porn industry looks monastic by comparison.

Politicians become lobbyists; industry executives turn into regulators; regulators take high-level industry jobs. The resultant amorphous blob of insider perks, favoritism and collusion do nothing whatsoever for the consumer, who is left to pay his money, caveat emptoring all the way, and take his chances under the illusion that someone is actually watching out for him.

No. Just, no.

Real regulation can and should come from established industries based on independent science and judicial -- not regulatory -- review. It is true that not every business will have the best interests of consumers in mind; it’s true today, and it’ll be true under an industry-policed system.

However, my thought is that industry watchdogs, watching themselves, will be less prone to look the other way and more likely to take safety, sanitation and sensibility into consideration than a not-really neutral government bureaucracy.

If industry screws up now, government often winds up taking the blame because it’s supposed to be watching everyone, everywhere all the time (shudder). If industry screws up, and it is providing the mechanism to avoid such things, there’s nowhere for the blame to fall. It’s within the rational self-interest of the industry to make sure everyone is playing by the rules -- and protecting consumers.

Isn’t that what we’re really after?

Forney is the opinion editor of the Lebanon (Pa.) Daily News. Contact him at


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