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SPECIAL EDITION:
Tomato/Salmonella Outbreak
Insights and Analysis

Is FDA Acting To Preserve
Public Health OR
Acting to be Seen as Activist?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 6, 2008

One of these days, someone high up is going to notice that the actions the FDA takes in the name of preserving public health often make no sense at all.

Right up till late last night, the FDA was warning consumers in New Mexico and Texas not to eat raw red plum tomatoes, red Roma tomatoes, round red tomatoes and products such as, say, a fresh salsa that may contain these tomatoes.

But there was virtually no chance the tomatoes implicated in this outbreak were grown in New Mexico or Texas and, in any case, the FDA is not banning sales of production from those states.

Now the only reason to stop anyone from eating anything would be if the FDA believed there was a continuing risk to public health. But if there was a continuing risk to public health from the producer or region that has been supplying New Mexico and Texas, how does warning consumers in those two states not to eat something increase public safety?

The “dangerous” production is not banned from sale; it just will be diverted from sale in New Mexico or Texas to New York or Michigan. The net effect on public health? Zero.

It reminds us of the “Import Alert” the FDA imposed on the cantaloupes of a Honduran producer, Agropecuaria Montelibano. In the course of our exhaustive coverage, we came to realize that the FDA was preventing Americans from eating cantaloupes from a third-party audited producer with many certifications and an excellent reputation without ascertaining that the substitute cantaloupes — say from an unaudited producer right next door — were any safer.

Now we suppose we should be grateful for small favors. During the spinach crisis of 2006, the FDA recommended consumers across the country not eat spinach of any kind from anywhere. Now as we pointed out at that time, this was peculiar as well, as the FDA had never determined that eating, say, lettuce, was “safer” than eating spinach.

We suppose that by only making such a recommendation to the residents of two states, we can see some progress. The FDA is aware of the enormous impact its warnings can have and would like to minimize its impact.

In the end, though, recommendations have to be rational. If there is a continuing risk and that risk level is unacceptable for the people of Texas, why is it acceptable for the people of Ohio?

The FDA seems to have a need to “do something” about every problem. The reality, though, is that in many cases, it just doesn’t have enough information to do anything useful.

For awhile, there was an interesting divergence between the recommendation being given on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the website of the FDA. Whereas the FDA website had this blanket “Do Not Consume” recommendation, the CDC was only urging people with compromised immune systems to not consume tomatoes.

In the end, CDC gave in and harmonized its recommendation to match FDA’s.

The truth is that in the course of feeding a nation of over 300 million people, there will be occasional salmonella outbreaks. It seems to occur randomly and sporadically. Of course, we can and should work to reduce the incidence of salmonella, but in the risks that life offers it is relatively small.

Still it would be prudent for people with compromised immune systems to be quite cautious of anything that might harbor microbial contamination — chemotherapy patients in hospitals are typically advised to avoid all contact with and consumption of all fresh fruits and vegetables. They are even advised to avoid exposure to fresh flowers.

But this much is clear: If the FDA is going to take action, the action should have intellectual coherence. Otherwise, the FDA will lose all respect as people realize it is acting not to enhance public health but to enhance its own reputation for activism.

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