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SPECIAL EDITION V:Salmonella/Tomato Crisis Continues For Most Of Mexico

Pundit’s Mailbag — Are Tomatoes
Really The Culprit?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 17, 2008

We’ve now run several special editions related to the Salmonella Saintpaul/Tomato situation:

These editions, plus other related content, include dozens of articles, tens of thousands of words… yet we have received a letter reminding us that just one word can be pregnant with meaning and if ill-chosen can define perceptions incorrectly:

Your piece, Pundit’s Mailbag — Can Tomatoes On The Vine From Mexico Be Sold?, is as good an explanation of how the FDA works in these cases as I have heard.

However, I would take issue with one word you use in the piece, I’ve capitalized it below:

“So the reason the government KNOWS it is tomatoes…”

Given that the FDA admits it has found no tainted tomatoes and now states that it probably never will find the true source of this outbreak (LA Times Fri Jun 13 buried on page C2), how can they say that they KNOW anything?.

The FDA should be honest and say they ASSUME or SUSPECT that tomatoes are the culprit and go from there.

Thanks for your great work on this issue.

— David N Cook
Deardorff Family Farms
Oxnard CA

We appreciate the kind words and the opportunity to pay attention to David’s point which focuses on the nature of knowledge.

David is, of course, correct in the sense that certainty is a strong term and, in most things in life, we should avoid it. Not too long ago we ran a piece related to global warming, and it included comments from a scientist that urged humility in claims of understanding. The scientist, a man named John Christy, was grateful to his high school physics teacher who admonished his class to begin all their science pronouncements with the phrase: “At our present level of ignorance, we think we know…”

Such humility is always becoming and, in the case of FDA, particularly important, for the FDA takes upon itself the role of district attorney, judge and juror.

Although it is tempting to say we don’t know if it is tomatoes, spinach or cantaloupes until we find one with the pathogen on it, serotyped to match the outbreak strain, and in a sense that may even be true, we also have to acknowledge that it is a standard of proof that is not applied elsewhere in life.

It would be nice to have a video recording of each crime committed, a DNA sample, three witnesses and a confession — but we convict people every day in America on circumstantial evidence.

If the produce industry focuses on denying the validity of Epidemiology, we will wind up marginalizing ourselves.

A position far more likely to persuade would be to challenge the CDC and FDA’s attempts to keep all information secret.

Even the best epidemiologists can make errors, especially when they are operating under enormous political pressure.

It is unreasonable to think the people of the United States should simply accept as gospel anything the CDC and FDA says, so our battle should not be to challenge epidemiology but rather to open up the process so industry epidemiologists can look at the data.

On an individual company basis, this has already proved enormously important. Although in dealing with small importers as in the Honduran cantaloupe situation — FDA field agents, often simply incapable of explaining the FDA’s epidemiology, simply stormed into companies like a bully and demanded recalls — it hasn’t always worked out that way.

In fact, FDA field office personnel have walked into offices of large and sophisticated produce companies and demanded recalls only to be countermanded by FDA headquarters staff after the private company had its own food safety and epidemiological experts review the evidence. In the end, it was determined that the FDA field office was misinterpreting its own epidemiology.

So, do we know that it is tomatoes? Until the FDA shares its epidemiology, we only know that the FDA has announced it is tomatoes and that, of course, is not the same thing.

Many thanks to David N Cook and Deardorff Family Farms for raising this important issues.

By the way, hope all you NPR fans caught a most articulate Tom Deardorff discussing “What The Salmonella Scare Means for Farmers.” If you missed it, you can listen here.

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