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Pundit’s Mailbag —
Taco Bell & FDA’s Rush To Judgment

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 3, 2007

Taco Bell continued its efforts to rehabilitate its reputation over the holidays, announcing that Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell would have lunch at a Taco Bell in Philadelphia. The press release said this would provide “…further demonstration that its food is completely safe to eat.”

Of course this is not true and they could have another outbreak tomorrow.

One wonders at the short-term nature of Taco Bell’s efforts. First they blamed scallions when, we now know, Taco Bell had no business making such an announcement. As we wrote earlier, quoting a food safety expert:

Taco Bell made public the results of its presumptive E coli testing. Such tests are known to frequently result in false positives. Taco Bell consciously made this decision without regard for confirmatory testing in the works by FDA. This premature release of misleading data and subsequent premature incrimination of a particular food item, green onions, formed the basis for the Taco Bell statements about the safety of operations that I and others have pointed out.

Until the food item that served as the vehicle for E coli is identified, Taco Bell cannot rightfully claim the outbreak is over. You know Taco Bell has some pretty sharp food safety people, I have worked with them…. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the discussions leading up to the release of the presumptive positive results.

In other words Taco Bell released information without concern for the fact that they might be found to be incorrect the next day — which is exactly what happened. Now they put their credibility at risk again.

Of course, the government is also not being helpful. The Pennsylvania Governor allows himself to be a PR tool of Taco Bell and doesn’t seem concerned that since they have found nothing and changed no standards, there is simply no reason to think it couldn’t happen again. So, how can the Governor participate in such a misleading charade?

Even the CDC’s involvement is very questionable. As we wrote about here after completely botching the spinach situation claiming to the bitter end that organic brands were implicated, the CDC without ever bothering to comment on its own failures, says of its survey methodology in The Taco Bell case:

By comparing foods consumed by ill and well persons, investigators can show statistical links between illness and consumption of particular food ingredients. Public health investigators have identified a few ingredients that were consumed more often by ill persons than well persons and were statistically linked with illness: lettuce, cheddar cheese, and ground beef.

Then, the CDC just decides…or guesses:

The investigators have also gathered additional information about the locations of involved restaurants, the patterns of distribution of food ingredients, and the characteristics and preparation of food ingredients. Evaluation of all these data indicates that shredded lettuce consumed at Taco Bell restaurants in the northeastern United States was the most likely source of the outbreak.

Of course, when the government says things like this, it is not speaking to a select group of scientists; it is speaking to the general public and the caveats get lost. So a theory that it might be lettuce quickly becomes a fact.

It is more than many in the business can bear. Cary Rubin, Vice President of Rubin Brothers on the New York City Terminal Market in Hunts Point, a long established firm well-known for representing many prominent brands, explains his frustration this way:

My view is that Taco Bell, as well as the FDA, should be held accountable for making assumptions that aren’t true. Obviously people’s safety is the most important issue, but when you condemn an item with lack of proof, you not only are hurting the growers of that product, you are hurting the shippers, wholesalers and retailers of that product.

Then they say… “We think lettuce might be the problem?” We “think”… are they kidding me? When in doubt, blame lettuce. I’m not saying lettuce isn’t the problem, but please, don’t use the words “we think” when it comes to something like this, especially in the wake of the spinach incident.

The media likes to grasp on to stories and this too will spiral into another “produce fiasco”, based off of “we think”. To me it’s ridiculous. If they prove that lettuce or green onions are not the culprit, not only should Taco Bell be held financially accountable, but so should the FDA for rushing to judgment…

“We think”, what a joke!!!!!

— Cary Rubin
Vice President

Rubin Brothers Produce Corp.

We appreciate Cary’s forthright letter. It reminds us that the damage done when a product is implicated is not only to implicated parties but to people and companies up and down the supply chain.

Cary also gives voice to frustration with the way politics is leading to an anti-scientific attitude. The CDC should say that it doesn’t know the cause and it is going to develop better methodology in the hope of identifying it more effectively next time. Taco Bell should say that there is no such thing as “completely safe” but it is doing all it can and looking to find out how it can do more.

Everyone and their brother is developing new and expensive things for farms to do without the slightest ability to quantify risk reduction through these methods.

Yet, what are we going to do? The government, the media, consumer advocates, all are demanding solutions, solutions beyond the limits of our scientific knowledge.

The truth is that we need a lot of money for research and many years to do it. We might get the money, but we won’t get the time. So we have little choice but to try some things and hope they work.

To anyone who thinks scientifically, it is going to be painful.

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