Americans should feel fortunate that, compared to much of the rest of the world, the food and drugs we regularly consume are safe and well tested. Yet because of the sheer size and power of our food and drug industries, there is always the potential for harm. That's why it so perplexing that food and drug safety has received so little attention in the current presidential campaign.
As of Friday, 29 people had died and more than 400 were ill from an outbreak of meningitis caused by tainted steroid injections for back pain. While there is still much to unravel about the manufacture and spread of this steroid, it is clear that lax oversight allowed a "compounding pharmacy" in Massachusetts to distribute a lethally contaminated product wide and far.
It is also clear that the compounding pharmacy industry has aggressively resisted regulation over the years. It's a classic example of an industry that fails to recognize how oversight can sometimes save it from its own worst actors.
We've seen this before in so many industries, ranging from meatpacking to lettuce production.
On the campaign trail, both President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have stated their commitment to food and drug safety, but their pledges have been vague and, especially in Romney's case, have been tailored to different audiences.
In April, for instance, Romney spoke at a San Diego medical device company, complaining about the time it takes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve new drugs and medical devices. He said the agency is part of an "attack on free enterprise" by "the thousands upon thousands of bureaucrats that work in Washington."
So far, Romney hasn't mentioned the meningitis outbreak on the campaign trail, so it is hard to know what his position is on pending legislation in Congress that would allow the FDA to oversee compounding pharmacies. But it is possible, based on his comments in San Diego and elsewhere, that he would oppose government regulation, arguing the compounding pharmacy industry has enough of an incentive to police itself.
A few months ago, Scientific American asked both Romney and Obama to clarify their positions on a range of scientific issues, including food safety.
Romney responded: "Preventive practices are the best tool to reduce the incidence of food-borne illnesses because they provide the greatest control over the potential risks of contamination and are generally the most cost-effective. These practices are best developed by growers, handlers, processors, and others in the supply chain ."
In response to the same question, Obama emphasized his support of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011.
"I signed the most comprehensive reform of our nation's food safety laws in more than 70 years giving the Food and Drug Administration the resources, authority and tools needed to make real improvements to our food safety system."
Government oversight of food and drugs is a balancing act. Overregulation can drive up prices and reduce the variety and supply of products. Both candidates recognize this balancing act. But Obama and Romney have distinctly different approaches to this issue, giving voters a clear choice, depending on their own individual philosophies.