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Science: As Tough As You Like It

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, February 14, 2007

The Pundit had an opportunity to sit down with a couple of key players in the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative, and we were challenged on our repeated suggestion — see here, here and here — that the standards Fresh Express detailed in a USA Today article should be adopted as minimum standards for the ready-to-eat industry.

The argument the buyers made is that we need a science-based standard, and the Fresh Express rules are arbitrary.

It is a fair critique. But in the absence of more information, there is no reason to believe that the draft GAPS are any more scientific than the Fresh Express standards.

Indeed it is not even clear that “science” can play more than a minor role in this process.

Scientists can propose plans that will achieve a given purpose, but the key issue is what the purpose is. In other words, the exact same committee, composed of the exact same scientists, will come up with totally different “scientific standards” depending on what they are instructed is the goal.

If you tell them it is unacceptable that anyone should ever again die because of E. coli 0157:H7 on spinach and that we would rather close up than have that on our hands, the scientists may tell you that we need to grow produce in greenhouses.

But if you tell them we want to improve the food safety standards of our traditional crop growing methods and hope to reduce the number of foodborne illness outbreaks from our products by 20%, they may tell you to leave an extra ten feet between a house and a field.

So the search for science-based standards is a chimera. We will get exactly as tough a protocol as we instruct the scientists to give us.

The great advantage of adopting the Fresh Express standards is this: As the largest player in the industry, we know that the standards are feasible for large-scale production. Using the toughest standards out there, we know that adopting the standards will fulfill the industry pledge to do “everything possible” to deliver safe produce to consumers.

And, if there should ever be another outbreak and, God forbid, another consumer should die, the industry will be spared congressional hearings at which Senators will question industry representatives with these questions: “How could you knowingly adopt standards lower than those of the largest producer of fresh-cuts? And how do you feel about that decision in light of the recent outbreak and subsequent death of one of your customers?”

What possible upside is there for the industry that would justify the trade exposing itself to such a question?

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