Lawn darts. Killer baby cribs. Pool drains that disemboweled children. Cars that exploded in low-speed fender benders.
Even though consumer advocates got rid of those deathtraps years ago, U.S. industry is back with jet planes that fall from the sky, strollers that will smash your kid’s face in and—coming soon to a store near you—pork that may or may not have fecal contamination.
Because we don’t need regulation, right?
“I think we’re going backwards,” said Bette Bommer, 68, a retired phys-ed teacher from Staten Island who was standing before a tribute to one of the biggest consumer safety scandals of 20th-century America—the Ford Pinto.
“It just feels like they’re moving everything, all these products, out so fast, without caring about safety and people. It’s just about business now,” Bommer said.
We were by one of the less popular exhibits at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the ode to “Consumer Advocacy.” I know, not nearly as lit as the Batmobile or Archie Bunker’s chair.
But the very fact that the display—which contains those awful lawn darts that maimed children of the ‘60s and ‘70s plus the model of the explosive Ford Pinto that was used in court to prove the deadly placement of the gas tanks—exists tells us something about the idea that the reckless disregard for customer safety for businesses was mostly a thing of the past.
It was the Ford Pinto in 1977 that fueled a more robust consumer advocacy culture, one that made us feel safe and secure in our products. Mother Jones journalist Mark Dowie got hold of a Ford Motor Co. document that calculated it was cheaper to pay off the families of folks who died in fiery crashes than to pay the $11 a car it would take to fix the problem of the poorly positioned gas tank.
“Of course, it wasn’t all the Pintos that did that, and I was never afraid to get into one,” said Pamela Litke, 67, a tourist from Oakland, California, who used to work for a car-rental company in the Pinto era and said they were a beloved and well-running car. She was chuffed to see the little model of a Pinto at the Smithsonian.
“But even if the car exploded in a perfect-storm scenario, why would you take that chance?” she said. “Some regulation is a good thing. Better safe than sorry.”
And sure, there are absurd cases of safety regulation. Just think of all the crazy stickers plastered on your new car, a baby seat or every darn plastic bag.
The museum display of documents and photos of Ralph Nader tracking the Pinto case and the rise of consumer advocacy in America is, ridiculously, one of the most Washington things in there. Not as sexy as the Star-Spangled Banner or President Abraham Lincoln’s top hat. But what does wonky Washington do better than regulate, calculate and analyze?
And that makes it easy—too easy—to belittle this part of Washington, to turn a middle-class workforce of regulators, scientists and engineers into big government enemies that need to be reined in.
And then you have planes falling out of the air, as that attitude toward the Federal Aviation Administration gave Boeing more power to regulate itself.
It’s a trend that “may have unintended consequences for safety,” wrote The Washington Post’s Michael Laris, after another Boeing jet crashed last month.
“The deaths of 346 people in the crashes of 737 Max 8 jets in Ethiopia and Indonesia have created a crisis for Boeing and the FAA, even as investigators continue delving into the disasters’ causes,” Laris wrote.
And then this week, The Washington Post’s Todd Frankel reported on the case of a Britax jogging stroller that had been involved in hundreds of bloody accidents after the front wheel fell off.
But a recall? Not anymore. As President Trump’s administration took over the case, the Consumer Product Safety Commission was neutered and its recommendation to recall the faulty stroller was ignored. Baby Pinto?
If the throwback to the freewheeling of 1970s vehicles isn’t retro enough for you, looks like our pork industry may be taking a trip back to the good old days of American meatpacking circa 1900.
Our Upton Sinclair of today, Kimberly Kindy, reported in The Post this week that the “Trump administration plans to shift much of the power and responsibility for food safety inspections in hog plants to the pork industry as early as May, cutting the number of federal inspectors by about 40 percent and replacing them with plant employees.”
Ready to say adios to your el pastor yet?
“Under the proposed new inspection system, the responsibility for identifying diseased and contaminated pork would be shared with plant employees, whose training would be at the discretion of plant owners,” Kindy wrote.
Fox, welcome to the hen house.
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts.
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