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FDA’s Michael Taylor Preaches ‘Scale Appropriate’ Food Safety Standards, Code Words For Exempting Small Farmers And Organics

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 27, 2010

Michael Taylor, the FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods, addressed a general session audience at the United Fresh Produce Association Convention in Las Vegas.

Pundit readers might be familiar with Mr. Taylor, as we ran his extensive testimony to Congress when he was Research Professor at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services in an article titled: FDA Gets Blueprint Blueprint For Future, Incentive Change Might Lead To Safer Food.

Mr. Taylor is something of a hero to folks in the “food safety community.” We explained why back in 2007, when we wrote a piece titled, Pundit’s Mailbag — Consumer Has Shared Responsibility In Food Safety, which featured a letter from Bardin Bengard, President of Bengard Ranches. The letter pointed out, correctly, that when it comes to food safety: “There is no substitute for consumers doing their part by looking at the product and using proper methods of preparation.”

We responded by saying that though this point was true, it wouldn’t matter in the end and the reason was Michael Taylor:

…as sympathetic as we are to the notion that the industry is wise to urge all sectors to do their part, we have a sense that the industry is standing athwart history on this one.

If consumer participation in food safety could be expected or mandated, then E. coli 0157:H7 in hamburger would not be a beef industry issue. It would always be the consumers or the restaurant’s fault for improperly cooking meat if anyone got sick.

Yet in the years following the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box outbreak, there was a clear shift away from this perspective. In mid-1994 a man named Michael Taylor was appointed as Chief of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Shortly thereafter, on September 29, 1994, Taylor said that the USDA would from that date forward regard E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground beef as an “adulterant,” because the epidemiological evidence showed that in the hands of consumers it was ”ordinarily injurious to health” — thus it was an adulterant that should never, ever be present in the product.

In mid-October, 1994, Taylor announced plans to launch a nationwide sampling of ground beef to assess how much E. coli O157:H7 was in the marketplace. Five thousand samples would be taken during the year from supermarkets and meat processing plants “to set an example and stimulate companies to put in preventive measures.”

A positive result would prompt product recalls of the entire affected lot, effectively removing it from any possibility of sale — even though no one had gotten sick and consumers and restaurants could make the hamburger 100% safe just by thoroughly cooking it.

So even where there is a kill step, the rule has become that it is unacceptable to sell product that is dangerous.

Certainly this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t urge consumers and restaurants to do all kinds of things to keep food safe. Certainly we can continue to preach from the hymnal of shared responsibility.

Yet, at least on our fresh-cut product, we really have to ignore all that when it comes to our production specs.

And if down the road bulk produce starts causing people to get sick, don’t expect a “blame the consumer” strategy to carry much weight with regulators or the consuming public.

Although those on the Left have doubts about Michael Taylor — his bio is deemed tarnished by some as he once worked for Monsanto, which makes him highly suspicious, if not certifiably evil, to a certain group of people — his declaration of E. coli 0157:H7 as an adulterant in ground beef made him the pivotal person in shifting to an absolute industry responsibility standard in food safety and led many to cheer when he was appointed to this newly created FDA position 2009.

His speech at United was generally unexceptional. He called for all the things the produce industry associations have already endorsed: national food safety standards, applicable to imports, risk-based and sensitive to regional variations.

He called for dialogue, partnership and participation. He got nice applause.

Unfortunately, unless you are a policy wonk following the nuance of inside-the-beltway politics, you probably didn’t realize that he was also using a DC code word for “let’s exempt certain competitors from food safety standards we demand of others.” That code phrase is “scale appropriate.”

He said it many times, tried to express it as a concept still searching for a definition, and he asked for help in defining what it means.

Well, it is an odd thing to endorse a concept you don’t know the meaning of, and we would say that this tortured quest for understanding is somewhat disingenuous, because it can only mean one thing.

“Scale appropriate” is a way of saying that in considering what food safety standards to apply, one is going to think of something other than food safety.

If one is serious about raising food safety standards, this is a triumph of politics over science.

Everyone accepts that “one size fits all” food safety standards make no sense. So if there is a relevant difference, variable standards not only make sense, but are required. For example, imagine there is a greenhouse that uses municipal water — that is to say fully potable drinking water that is already constantly tested by a municipal water system. To require that greenhouse to test that water at source, the way we might require someone using river water or well water to do, would be unfair, unnecessary, redundant and needlessly burdensome.

“Scale-appropriate” is an oxymoron when applied to food safety because there is nothing in the scale of the operation that impacts on food safety. It is a political term in which, depending on your point of view, you can say either that those who want food safety legislation are proposing to get it by buying off the votes of the numerically large number of small growers with a scientifically unmerited exemption or that the Obama administration doesn’t want to annoy a politically important part of their coalition, the organic community.

All the arguments for exempting small growers from food safety regulations that apply to large growers are either not justified by science or logic or not related to food safety.

Typically advocates of such an exemption make one theoretical claim and one statistical claim:

The theoretical argument is that “Joe, the small farmer, will not have food safety problems because he cares and won’t sell, for example, crop that has had an animal intrusion in the field and won’t allow, for example, a worker with a bad cold to work harvesting.”

We have no reason to think small farmers any more or less ethical than large farmers, but their situation is very different and it rebounds exactly the opposite of this assertion.

For a large agribusiness, policies are typically set and enforced dispassionately. The harvest chief, who sees pigs or cows in a field and pulls out his harvesting crews and machinery, is typically not impacted financially by that decision. Equally, the decision to send an employee home is not going to impact the income of the person making that decision.

In contrast, the small farmer is unlikely to be dispassionate about such a decision. This land is his livelihood and if he sees a pig run through it, his inclination is typically not to bankrupt himself by deciding not to harvest that year’s crop. Nor, when all hands are needed, is he likely to want to start sending scarce workers home because someone has a cold.

The statistical argument is even weaker than the theoretical one. Advocates for exemptions for small growers from food safety standards will claim that the outbreaks are almost never traced back to small growers, only large ones. This is a statistical quirk. Most people who get sick in food safety outbreaks are never identified to the authorities; they get a stomach ache and then get better. This means that a typical outbreak has very few known sick people.

The problem in the statistics thus becomes obvious. If the sale of a few million servings of a produce item by a giant producer only produces an outbreak with a couple hundred known illnesses, a small grower — if his product is contaminated to the precise same percentage as the large grower — will produce too few known illnesses to ever be traced back.

Typically outbreaks are identified because the sick people answer survey questions differently than a base study of healthy people. So if, typically, 10% of the population has eaten raw spinach within the past 72 hours and a group of sick people show that 99% of them had eaten spinach within the 72 hour period, that is a strong indication that they are sick due to spinach or something associated with spinach — say bacon bits. But you need a critical mass of people sick to answer the survey and contrast with the control survey. If you only have one sick person, the survey isn’t that helpful.

Everything we know about food safety gives us reason to think food safety issues affect producers large and small. If Michael Taylor and the administration want a “scale appropriate” exemption for small growers, it is because they have abandoned honesty about food safety in a quest to get the authority they yearn to give government.

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