This week in the Capitol, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
is defending an absurd budget plan. Numerous state legislators are
pledging not to raise taxes. Vital programs and departments are
scrambling for their share of a dwindling pie. Slowly but surely, the
public safety net is being shredded.
Meanwhile, Dr. Dennis Thompson continues to work at the Department
of Food and Agriculture as he has for the last 30 years, dedicated to
ensuring a safe food supply for all Californians.
Trained as a veterinarian, Thompson had no intention of staying at
the department when he first came onboard. Thirty years later, this
funny, modest public employee oversees the department’s Meat and
Poultry Inspection branch. In addition to other duties, his department
regulates all of California’s rendering plants, where millions of
pounds of animals and their waste products are disposed of and recycled
each year. I recently interviewed him in connection with an advertising
supplement we’re working on about the Sacramento Rendering
Thompson could have made more money as a private-sector
veterinarian. He probably would have worked fewer hours. But he knows
that the work he does, while largely unnoticed, is important—very
important. If his agency screws up, people can die.
Before the government went into the food-inspection business,
spoiled meat was openly sold, and people did die. Today’s system
is a different animal, where tens of thousands of different
entities—farmers, meat-packing companies, rendering plants,
shippers and retailers—all have to play by the rules to keep food
safe. It’s up to Thompson to enforce those rules.
Right now, our elected officials are talking about more cutbacks,
more layoffs and more furlough days. But before they make any more
cuts, they need to consider the importance of the work done by Thompson
and many other state agencies and employees.
This is not to say that government shouldn’t be more
efficient. But it’s important for us not to throw the baby out
with the bath water. As our elected officials posture and proclaim,
let’s hope they remember the critical institutions that defend
and enhance our way of life: the resource boards that protect our air
and water, the health-care system, police and fire departments, the
folks who repair our streets and stock the books in our libraries, and
last but not least, the state Department of Food Agriculture’s
Meat and Poultry Inspection division.