- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Last Friday, the Food and Drug Administration issued a press release announcing that: "Contrary to some mistaken recent media reports, the 1999 FDA Food Code does not prohibit restaurants from serving sunny-side up or over easy eggs. that … consumers should be provided with an advisory on menus that there is an increased risk associated with eating undercooked eggs." In other words, every restaurant in the country merely has to reprint its menus. The press release ended with the ominous statement that: "This rule is one part of the larger Egg Safety Action Plan …"

The Egg Safety Action Plan turns out to be a bureaucratic enterprise only slightly more complex than the D-Day invasion of Europe. As I started slogging my way through the FDA´s various web sites and portals, I first came upon a general advisory prepared by the National Institutes of Health on how to avoid infected food intake.

It included the novel advice that before cooking, "Wash your hands after cleaning up animal feces." The reader is also admonished not to drink "untreated surface water." So advised, I am sure we will all forthwith desist from drinking out of ditches, gutters and puddles.

And, in what is surely a major source of infection in the United States, the reader is advised to "Avoid infected … iguanas." It is heartbreaking to think how many thousands of American lives are lost each year for failure to follow this simple advice.

Eventually I hit pay dirt: "Federal Register: Dec. 5, 2000, Volume 65, Number 234, Rules and Regulations Food Labeling, Safe Handling Statements, Labeling of Shell Eggs; Refrigeration of Shell Eggs Held for Retail Distribution; Final Rule." Right away, the comforting assurances that Americans will continue to be able to order fried eggs (with the yolk not cooked to the density of a lead ball) was slightly diminished by a statement of possible future intent on page 76,096: "[Under the Egg Safety Action Plan] FDA plans to take additional steps to protect at-risk consumers by establishing safe egg handling and preparation practices …"

With that passing bureaucratic hope left to hang forebodingly over the reader´s mind, the regulation writers delve into the intricacies of the current mandates. They wrestle with the almost talmudic problem that "there is not enough room on the egg carton to print the lengthy safe handling statement." This is solved by permitting the print to be only one-sixteenth of an inch high, although it is recognized that some old people (an endangered class of egg eaters) will not be able to read the warning.

Later, the regulation report determines that the improved labeling will prevent somewhere between 1,570 and 25,196 illnesses a year (close enough for government work). Notice that while they admit they could be off by a factor of over 1,600 percent, they insist on the number 25,196, not 25,195.

A deeper understanding of the bureaucratic mind is gained when they estimate how many small businesses might be affected by the refrigeration mandate that eggs be kept at temperatures no greater than 7.2 degrees C. The answer is 25,400. They admit that the "FDA does not know the fraction of establishments affected … so the agency used a Monte Carlo simulation … In the simulation, FDA assumed that in each State between 0 percent and 100 percent of the establishments …The mean result of the 1,000 iterations of the simulation was a total of 44,400 large and small establishments [of which 25,400 are small businesses]."

Between 0 percent and 100 percent? In other words, the regulation may effect none, all or some. This is not close enough even for government work. The bureaucrats who concocted it must either have relapsed into imbecility or are half-stunned by alcohol. But by the time this gibberish is summarized, executive-edited and processed by the media, the public gets the definitive headline: "325,400 Small Businesses Affected." Believe nothing, unless you have read the fine print.

The serene arrogance of these bureaucratic draftspeople is on full display in the section on federalism, where they assert (on page 76,110) that: "To ensure the safety of eggs for all consumers in this country, not only must there be national standards, but enforcement of these standards must be uniform across the country." Thus, egg cartons that are already printed with the words: "keep refrigerated" are deemed out of compliance with the regulation that requires the phrase, "keep eggs refrigerated." And, while the FDA concedes that "Congress did not expressly pre-empt state law," the "FDA finds pre-emption is needed." So they go ahead and pre-empt.

Finally, they happily (for themselves) find that their regulation is exempt from the Paperwork Reduction Act because their work "does not constitute a collection of information," but rather "a public disclosure of information."

I report these grievous findings to my readers not only because I worry that the federal government will some day soon deny us the right to order a fried egg over-easy (they are undoubtedly waiting until the comforting press release has had its full narcotic effect on our vigilance), but as a reminder that even the most solid and definitive-sounding government proclamations are likely to be composed of mere wind.

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