Lettuce, Vioxx, and Cigarettes in a perfect world

If this were a perfect world, putting these three items in the same sentence might not rouse any kind of negative response. For some who don’t read the newspaper or haven’t been personally impacted by any of these products, lumping them together might seem puzzling. But for those who realize that these are just examples of what happens when industries are not regulated in how they function and are able to set their own “voluntary” standards in dealing with the public health impacts of their goods, it becomes quite clear that “voluntary” participation in protecting the public doesn’t hold a candle to the concern for profits in our oh-so imperfect world.
There are so many examples of the public learning too late to save the lives of those who were unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of corporate indifference to public health and safety that it would take far too long to list them. But we do know that one of the important functions of government is to regulate industries and businesses that produce goods and services that can be potentially harmful. Sadly, we see over-and-over again instances when we simply end up closing the barn door after the animals have fled. Unfortunately, when we’re dealing with leaders who would rather let these businesses regulate themselves (i.e. letting the fox guard the hen house), the door often doesn’t get truly closed until more damage and death occurs and the public cry becomes too loud to ignore. Enter State Senator Dean Florez who represents portions of the Central Valley and is seeking to protect the public health by introducing his “California Produce Safety Action Plan” designed to create and enforce effective safety standards in the growing and processing of leafy vegetables in California.

Florez, a man with intellect, innovation and ambition, introduced three bills he believes will protect against the potentially lethal bacteria, e-coli, which has been found in California grown lettuce and spinach. For those of us who try to eat healthy, these are two products that are key staples in a healthy diet. Of course, we won’t even mention the potential problems with fatal disease,like Mad-cow, for meat-eaters. It may be only a matter of time before we hear of shoddy practices causing this dangerous disease to rear its ugly and life-threatening head in our food-chain as well. After all, when an industry faces potential disaster, how often has it come forward to admit its situation, or do they opt to cover it the situation for as long as it can (like Merck with its flawed medication, Vioxx) thus needlessly subjecting its victims to potentially serious health consequences or death? Where is the deterrence where the fox guards the hen house? Where is the concern when profits are at risk?
Some believe that the legal system provides that deterrence; that civil and criminal suits can and would be brought to punish those companies and make them pay with huge financial consequences. In a perfect world this would be true. Unfortunately, this important mechanism continues to be undermined by the ultra-conservative movement that has packed the federal courts with judges who protect industry and their bottom-line profits over consumers. Witness the numerous jury verdicts that these judges have overturned or reduced to a mere pittance of what jurors believed to be an appropriate penalty for corporate abuse. Witness also, the efforts made to vilify the lawyers who bring these suits on behalf of the public; who invest their own money into these suits while the corporate defendants invest shareholder profits to defend against management’s negilgence or intentional malfeasance. Efforts are made constantly, both in California and nationally, to reduce or cap punitive and compensatory damages designed to make the injured victims whole and to deter corporate bad conduct in the future. Blaming the attorneys prosecuting these claims on behalf of the injured, rather than the corporate offenders is part of the right-wing and free-market propaganda so effectively promoted by big business and the insurance industries.
Sadly, corporate culture tends to focus exclusively on the profit motive irrespective of the consequences to the public. They try to redirect the blame to others, particularly the lawyers who represent the public injured by corporate misbehavior. Corporate stewardship and responsibility are scoffed at-until a major problem erupts that cannot be ignored. Then the bad actors try to pin the blame on others and claim it’s all the fault of the lawyers who represent the injured parties, injured because of corporate greed or indifference.
The deterrent effect of legal action is being seriously eroded and our own Governor apparently believes that the marketplace will reign itself in, where history and years of experience show vividly that such self-regulation rarely works. Where there is no corporate accountability and oversight by truly independent bodies, we have seen scant and insignificant progress. Often the “controlled” industry is controlled by its own buddies and colleagues who are far too sympathetic and benign in their oversight. It takes a crisis to introduce action, rather than avoiding a crisis by action in advance.
Of course, in a perfect world, corporate America would look at the public good as part of its responsibilities, as part of its bottom-line. Good corporate stewardship would combine the two, but until we get there, we’re not going to protect public health and safety by letting the fox continue to guard the henhouse. All you end up with is fat foxes and noone to protect the defenseless hens. It’s a simple act of nature and human experience. Someone needs to make this point more persuasively to our “bipartisan” governor (maybe Florez can figure out a way to get invited to share a cigar with the governor in his smoking tent) and give him a lesson in history, starting with the Great Depression triggered by a stock market which was supposed to regulate itself.
In the meantime, remember to continue washing that lettuce and spinach very well—and hope that doing that is sufficient to protect your health. As for the Vioxx and cigarettes, well………we’ve already seen what self-regulation has done for those industries and its victims.