Nobody wants to deal with salmonella poisoning. Not you, not me, and certainly not the pork industry. Companies know that if their meat is contaminated with the disease-causing bacteria, they might sicken or even kill people—and thus get sued. So it’s in their best interest to keep everything clean.
That is the essence of the Trump administration’s argument for getting rid of about 40 percent of federal pork inspectors. By next month, according to The Washington Post, the pork plants themselves will be in charge of “identifying and removing live diseased hogs when they arrive at the plants”—as opposed to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is responsible for ensuring that “everyone’s food is safe.”
News of the administration’s decision prompted comparisons to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and allusions to a fox guarding a hen house. Several pundits and journalists suggested Americans protest by keeping kosher—or, at least, reconsidering their next BLT. That’s all well and good, but Trump’s desire to let industries regulate their own safety doesn’t begin and end with the pork industry. Salmonella and E. coli are one thing. Nuclear explosions, plane crashes, and offshore oil spills are another entirely.
Republicans have been waging a four-decade war on government regulation, starting with the Reagan administration. The complaint, then as now, is that regulations are often excessive and financially punitive, stunting private companies’ growth and putting them at a disadvantage against foreign competition. But most Republicans admit that some regulation is necessary. The White House Council of Economic advisers, a 2017 paper on “The Growth Potential of Deregulation,” acknowledged that “society is better off with regulations that prevent toxic waste dumping, outlaw child labor, and protect endangered species.”
But in many cases, Republicans don’t see why the government itself has to be the regulator. Why should taxpayers pay for federal inspectors to badger businesses when the businesses themselves have an economic incentive not to threaten public health and safety?
But the record is clear: Industry self-regulation often fails, and a lot of people wind up getting hurt. Buffalo News cartoonist Adam Zyglis illustrated the point (literally) this week in response to the related crashes of two Boeing 737 Max jets, which together took 346 lives.* As NPR reported, the U.S. government “had delegated to Boeing much of the testing of its 737 Max jets. Critics say the FAA let the company basically certify its own plane.”
The Federal Aviation Administration’s laissez-faire policy predates Trump—the last Republican president is to blame—but he’s intent on imitating it, despite the obvious dangers.
The day before the Post’s story on pork inspections broke, the Senate Environment and Public Works committee held an oversight hearing for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The hearing was called, in part, to discuss a new safety regulation designed to protect American nuclear reactors from earthquake and flooding events, like the one that caused the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan. Though the health impact of that disaster so far appears to be minimal, the plant is still not secured—large swaths of land and water remain contaminated, and surrounding villages are still uninhabited.
The draft version of the rule, released by the NRC in 2016, required all nuclear plant owners to do two things: reassess all flood and earthquake risks, then implement new safety measures taking the reassessment into account. But in January 2019, with Trump appointees making up a majority of the commission, it approved a final version of the rule making the safety measures voluntary. Nuclear power plants, in other words, will still have to do new risk assessments—but now they can choose whether they want to prepare for those risks or not.
The nuclear industry is also pushing the NRC to cut down on safety inspections and rely instead on plants to police themselves. The NRC “is listening” to this advice, the Associated Press reported last month. “Annie Caputo, a former nuclear-energy lobbyist now serving as one of four board members appointed or reappointed by President Donald Trump, told an industry meeting this week that she was ‘open to self-assessments’ by nuclear plant operators, who are proposing that self-reporting by operators take the place of some NRC inspections.”
The Trump administration also has been pushing to reinstate self-regulation of offshore oil rigs, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill led to a government crackdown. “After the 2010 blowout, the Obama administration ... required well operators to hire independent third parties to conduct safety checks,” NPR reported this week. “Now, the Trump administration is trying to roll that regulation back.”
There’s obvious appeal to self-regulation. It’s extremely costly to the taxpayer to ensure that industries aren’t hurting or killing Americans. To certify airplanes itself, the government would need “nearly $2 billion and 10,000 new employees,” NPR reported. That’s not impossible, but it would represent a significant increase in the Federal Aviation Administration’s total budget of $17.7 billion and its workforce of about 35,000 people.
But time and again, industries have proven that they will skimp on safety and cheat the rules if the government has made clear that it’s not watching. Sometimes that causes millions of Americans to lose their jobs and homes. Sometimes it causes thousands of people to get sick. And sometimes it causes hundreds to die. Trump is doing everything in his power to increase the chance of all of the above.
* A previous version of this article misstated the model of Boeing jet involved in the two crashes.