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FDA Status Quo Cannot Stand

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 4, 2008

Our coverage of Agropecuaria Montelibano and the “import alert” imposed on its cantaloupes grown in Honduras — which included pieces, such as FDA Fumbles Again On Cantaloupe ‘Alert’, and a special 14-article edition devoted solely to the issue, which we called We Are All Affected By Cantaloupe Issue and Positive Test On Cantaloupe Causes More Confusion — brought a letter by a man with empathy, gained through first person experience, for those caught up in a food safety issue:

The industry is very grateful for the stand you have taken in trying to protect the grower and ultimately our industry.

When Church Brothers/True Leaf had our recall last summer you were the one lone voice that told our story in a timely manner. Produce is only a small part of most of our customers’ business, usually around 10%, and when there is a recall the first inclination of most company C.E.O.’s is to get away from the supplier with the problem and find a new supplier. I know how these cantaloupe growers feel.

Until you told our story, it was our staff talking to each of our customers. A third party needs to be telling these stories because we as owners are going to be perceived as protecting our companies first and the consumer second. That notion couldn’t be further from the truth.

A voluntary recall is just that — Voluntary.

If you follow today’s rules — and I contend that 99% do — your chances of a major contamination are almost impossible. We are living in a world today where most of the press would have you believe that one person getting sick is one too many. The fact is that we take risks every day and there are no guarantees in life.

1200 people a day die from tobacco, but that is old news and so no one bothers to tell that story today. Fresh Express serves 25,000,000 salads per day, and they have never had a food safety violation.

It was reported recently that in the past 10 years, the F.D.A. has been in their plant on various occasions and have found violations but didn’t have the manpower to follow up on the problems.

In my opinion, F.D.A. has no right to report this unless they do follow up, and based on the people I know that ran Fresh Express in the past and run Fresh Express today, I know that they would never do anything to jeopardize the reputation they have built.

I hope that the F.D.A. and the U.S.D.A. can work out their differences, and I further hope that the leadership of this country understands the importance of protecting this country’s growers and shippers as well as the general public.

No grower today wants to get anyone sick — It is in fact our worst nightmare. In our case, we have moved to field-testing each and every acre of spring mix and spinach we grow. If we get a positive test, we retest and so far 1600 tests have resulted in 12 presumptive positives. Of those 12 positives, all were retested and found to be negative.

The pre-plant audit we do to ensure our fields are clean and the pre-harvest audit to check for animal intrusion, as well as several other factors, makes me very comfortable that we will not have a major contamination. Our industry has always been very diligent when it comes to food safety, but the Leafy Greens Agreement has forced us to document what we do and I believe that is a good thing.

The important thing and the main point I want to make is, as a shipper, we have very few people watching out for us and helping to get the real truth to the people who make the decisions. I believe that The Pundit has helped get timely information to the right places so we have a chance of survival.

Our business is perishable, and without timely stories and timely answers and solutions our business will perish. Thanks again Jim — you play a critical role in our world, and we are very blessed to have you there.

— Tom Church
President
Church Brothers, LLC

We are most appreciative and even blushing a bit at Tom’s generous words toward the Pundit. We are, however, reminded of the famous episode in which President Truman, campaigning to win the presidency in his own right after ascending to the office upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was giving a speech attacking the Republicans and a supporter, supposedly without prompt, yelled out “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” President Truman replied “I don’t give them Hell. I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.”

We don’t try to protect the grower or the retailer or the FDA. We just try to analyze the situation and tell the truth as best we can figure it out.

The problem in dealing with the FDA is that many people who know the truth don’t think themselves in a position to speak out. One reader who had been working for a company that imported Chilean fruit at the time of the “cyanide scare” sent along this note:

Very good coverage.

There are really very few people who can speak out about this as FDA decisions to retain or sample each shipment are effectively random, and if someone speaks up the FDA can ruin you by just sampling and retaining more of your imports. Even people not at the mercy of the FDA don’t want to come across as reckless or advocating unsafe foods.

This reminds me exactly of the Chilean grape cyanide scare years ago. At the time, I had just finished reading Atlas Shrugged, and it was completely shocking to me how parallel the situation was to the book, with murky unclear government announcements from people with other motives and oblivious or without regard to who was being hurt, with no one standing up to the ridiculous situation that was going on.

It seemed preposterous that an FDA inspector could have found two tainted grapes and tested those two particular grapes with nothing else ever being found, they never released any clear information about it, but all over the country and the world, people were dumping Chilean grapes, pears, stone fruits, etc., because of this pseudo recall/warning that nothing could be done about.

I wanted to hold a news conference with 100 children of produce workers eating Chilean fruit, but I didn’t own my company then and it just seemed better to leave it all alone at the time

It’s interesting because all a terrorist has to do now to bring down a country is poison one item and call the FDA or media for testing.

After the spinach crisis, first United Fresh and then PMA and United Fresh jointly came to the conclusion that a mandatory federal program, in all likelihood run by FDA, was essential to building consumer and regulatory confidence in the safety of fresh produce.

We joined that call, but find ourselves growing hesitant, thinking that if we are going to move in that direction, we need to have legislation that better clarifies FDA’s role. Its discretion is almost absolute, and as Lord Acton taught us: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Our piece, Church Brothers/True Leaf Recalls, Then ‘Unrecalls’ spring Mix/Arugula After Testing Mishap, told how a company looking to do the right thing was almost crushed by a contaminated lab sample at a private laboratory. And our piece, Friday The 13th, March 1989…Important Date In Produce History, included this line about the FDA:

It was a Friday the 13th in March 1989, that we learned that in the early morning hours the FDA alleged they had found 2 individual Flame seedless grapes had been injected with cyanide in one box out of 190,000 boxes of grapes on a vessel named the Almeria Star.

It was later established in testing performed at UC Davis that at the reported level of cyanide found in the grapes they would have had to be in the possession of the FDA at the time of the contamination, or the test was in fact ‘an error’.

To this day, the FDA has never felt an obligation to come clean about what it did back in 1989. Just in our last interview with the FDA, its spokesperson responded this way:

Q: Will FDA provide the results of the tests? Are you releasing tests so the shipper can monitor and evaluate them?

A: We are sharing the test results with the company. We follow a scientific method and we share that method and the results. We stand by our tests.

Yet companies wait weeks to see anything, long after their reputations are destroyed and actions have been taken. There is no notion at the FDA that it has any kind of responsibility to contemporaneously prove its points to anyone.

But people who work at FDA are humans, they make mistakes, they have other interests, they can be blackmailed, they can be paid off — anything can happen. Yet they feel no need, and are not compelled by legislation, to prove anything to anybody. That is a major problem.

Another problem Tom alludes to is that the FDA’s whole way of thinking is no longer in line with modern food safety techniques. In the old days of The Jungle, the key was inspection. Now the key is prevention. For the FDA to defacto ban product, it should, at least, be required by law to issue a finding that the replacement product will be safer than the product FDA is defacto banning.

In the case of Agropecuria Montelibano, there have been loads of recalls because this is such a big operator. The golden names that bought from this company or used its product, Dole, Chiquita, the various British supermarkets, Fresh Express Foods Corp., Taylor Farms — all this points to the Solid Gold nature of its food safety efforts.

In banning its product, FDA just left people to buy from a cantaloupe producer that isn’t GlobalGAP-certified, that doesn’t have Primus GAP and GMP certifications.

Of course, the FDA’s job is protecting consumers and if it knows of dangerous fruit, it should stop it — but it no more knows of dangerous fruit from this company than it knew about dangerous Chilean grapes.

If the epidemiology is pointing to a particular company, the FDA might want to determine if the company is following gold-standard food safety procedures. If so, FDA should double check the system and make sure the company didn’t have a corrupt auditor, etc.

There has to be more of a standard than that the FDA, thinking there might be ANY risk to consumers — even a lesser risk than would exist with alternative product — can then destroy a company, unemploy thousands of people, crush a country and an industry. It is inconceivable. It is wrong.

Our second letter-writer is correct; this simply makes no sense. By this standard, a terrorist can cut off our trade with all our friends by smearing some bacteria on some imported produce.

This status quo cannot stand — the FDA must be made answerable for its decisions.

Many thanks to Tom Church and our second correspondent for their thoughtful letters.

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