If other government agencies ran that way, the Consumer Product Safety Commission would be promoting U.S. baby crib makers at the same time it evaluated their products as potential death traps.
"There's some peril with that kind of approach," says Jeff Bumgarner, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Minnesota who studies the history of federal law enforcement. "The trade part of your mission is one of support and standing up the industries, and the tax collection part and the regulatory part and the compliance part is one of holding those industries in check."
That basic conflict leaves the U.S. government with an alcohol regulator that recently hosted industry executives at conferences to educate them about the bureau's rules and encourage "voluntary compliance," then months later raided a Native American reservation that was suspected of harboring cigarette tax evaders.
Critics say the bureau's close relationship with industry makes it less likely to take a hard line against violators.
Foster sees it another way. He says agents and officials like him are more effective overseers of the industry because they started out working on the distillery floor, measuring batches of liquor and handing producers their tax bills.
"It gave us all a significant understanding of how the industry operates and what their challenges were," he says.
Agency officials say they are making the most of limited resources, and doing better than most federal departments. And their workload is increasing steadily. The alcohol and tobacco bureau is responsible, for example, for approving every label to be used on an alcohol product in the U.S. As the number of microbrewers and microdistilleries explodes, the work of reviewing those labels is becoming a heavier lift.
The bureau now regulates more than 56,000 companies, an increase of 27 percent since 2007. In that time, its core budget rose only 8 percent.
Like any government office, the agency has had its share of hiccups. Agawam grapes were known on U.S. wine labels as Agwam grapes until the bureau corrected its spelling error in rules published last year.
Vintners with leftover Agwam labels were given until October to stop using them.
Daniel Wagner can be reached at www.twitter.com/wagnerreports.
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