There was a time when high school students read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The 1906 book is about the meat packing industry. Sinclair’s work and reporting by the so-called muckrakers Ida M. Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and others played a role in the creation of institutions such as the Food and Drug Administration.
Like the government regulation that followed the sinking of the Titanic, the muckrakers’ works revealed that some businessmen could not be trusted to insure their customers’ health and safety.
Now we have a contemporary case of a pharmaceutical company’s lax practices leading to grave illness and deaths among those who used its products. The New England Compounding Center is a compounding pharmacy at the heart of a national meningitis outbreak in which 25 people have died, 313 more have fallen ill and as many as 14,000 people are believed to have been exposed.
The New York Times reported Friday that both FDA and state regulators had discovered serious deficiencies in practices at the compounding center. The Times noted that “Russell E. Madsen, a consultant on sterility issues to the pharmaceutical industry, said of the inspection report: ‘In all my time in the pharmaceutical industry, which is 45 years, I’ve never seen one this bad.’”
There is an aspect to federal rules that is like the classroom. Teachers often manage their classrooms to their most unruly student. That’s where rules come from.
As we listen to candidates railing against regulations, it is important to remember that many of the rules requiring inspections were written because some businesses have actually done some really bad things to their customers.
Congress did away with one of consumers’ best protections when it repealed the Glass-Steagall Act that prohibited banks from engaging in the securities business. Many economists have cited the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall as an element in the banking crisis that led to the Great Recession. The banker Sanford Weill, creator of the Citigroup megabank, has said that Congress should look at reinstating Glass-Steagall.
The preponderance of business people are ethical. But an American would be naive not to recognize the need to set boundaries and inspections to contain the damage caused by a few.