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FDA Should Look At Auto
Industry When Setting Risk Policy

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 17, 2009

One wonders if the folks at FDA read The New York Times. If they do, we hope they go beyond the food and drug articles because a recent piece, titled Study Says Minicar Buyers Sacrifice Safety, should prompt many at the FDA to rethink their approach to food safety.

The gist of the article was not surprising:

Consumers who buy minicars to economize on fuel are making a big tradeoff when it comes to safety in collisions, according to an insurance group that slammed three minimodels into midsize ones in tests.

In a report prepared for release on Tuesday, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said that crash dummies in all three models tested — the Honda Fit, the Toyota Yaris and the Smart Fortytwo — fared poorly in the collisions. By contrast, the midsize models into which they crashed fared well or acceptably. Both the minicars and midsize cars were traveling 40 miles per hour, so the crash occurs at 80 m.p.h.

The institute concludes that while driving smaller and lighter cars saves fuel, “downsizing and down-weighting is also associated with an increase in deaths on the highway,” said Adrian Lund, the institute’s president.

“It’s a big effect — it’s not small,” he said in a telephone interview.

Although the report, titled Car Size and Weight are Crucial, is interesting, for our purposes the point is that consumers have to make trade-offs between different values. This is hardly a new insight… the article points out that this discussion has been going on a long time:

In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences said that steps by car manufacturers to reduce vehicle weight to comply with federal fuel economy standards had resulted in 1,300 to 2,600 additional deaths in 1993.

Yet, of course, this news — even coming directly from the National Academy of Sciences — did not lead to immediate repeal of the fuel economy standards, nor were laws passed mandating stronger bumpers or proof of better crash resistance. Lightweight vehicles were not recalled, nor were companies banned from selling them.

The question the FDA officials should be considering is why this is so. The answer is because safety, although obviously very important, is only one of many values.

It is highly likely that all these recalled pistachios, fully labeled with a hot pink sticker explaining the risks, would sell quite well at 50% off. Why? The risk is infinitesimal and, if you are healthy and strong, getting salmonellosis is not the most serious illness in the world.

The question is why the FDA wants to deny consenting adults the right to make judgments of these sorts, yet we allow people to make such judgments every day in selecting vehicles.

We would have no objection to the FDA keeping the public informed. We would actually be interested in knowing how much the FDA thinks a person’s risk of getting salmonellosis actually increases if one eats the recalled pistachios as opposed to non-recalled pistachios.

We suspect the FDA doesn’t make these analyses because it would show how inconsequential these broad FDA recalls are to food safety. If they told the public the kinds of facts that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is telling, consumers would ignore these FDA recommendations not to consume.

An objective observer would see that as a rational response to available information. FDA executives see it as making their agency less important. That may be the root of the problem.

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