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Special Edition VIII —
Salmonella Saintpaul Outbreak
Takes Another Bizarre Turn

FDA Does Damage Control While
Doctor Acheson Tries to Justify The Unjustifiable

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 28, 2008

While CDC ‘s story is surrealistic, the FDA has become positively delusional. Here is what Dr. David Acheson, MD, FDA’s Associate Commissioner for Foods, had to say in the same press conference where CDC started backtracking:

It isn’t over yet. We don’t have all the answers yet. This is all really designed in the context of trying to inform consumers about what we know and when we know it what we know and what we don’t. It is still a more constructive process than simply staying silent for two months and then coming out with “we don’t know the answer.”

Where does one start? With the obvious, of course. If this turns out not to be tomatoes, then the whole process was not, in fact, “constructive” at all. It would have been, in fact, enormously “destructive”.

Consumers threw out good food at a time of tight budgets, tomato farmers, packers, wholesalers, repackers, distributors and brokers suffered enormously. Some will go bankrupt. Employees, including migrant workers and poor Mexican harvesters, will have lost some or all of their livelihood.

And, of course, if it wasn’t tomatoes, then no public health benefit came from all the FDA recommendations — in fact public health suffered as a nutritious food was sometimes replaced by foods less nutritious.

So, yes, it would have been better to say nothing than give out incorrect information.

Besides, it is debating 101 that when you have a weak case, you create a false dichotomy. In this case, Dr. Acheson sets up the straw man as being either do exactly what he did or be completely silent. There is another choice… how about being honest?

Look, the FDA’s job is to enhance public health, not protect the produce industry, so the industry may not always be thrilled with FDA activities. That is OK.

But public health is not assisted by false certainty. In fact, the public health recommendations have cut off discussion and debate and the context Dr. Acheson references of to inform consumers about what we know and when we know it what we know and what we don’tsuddenly disappears.

The truth was probably something like this:

“We believe there is an 80% or better chance that fresh red round, red roma and red plum tomatoes are implicated in this outbreak. Because the outbreak started six weeks before this advisory, if the outbreak was based on a farm, it is 80% likely that it is already over and the only risk would be from tomatoes already in a home. In any case the risk is small.

Most healthy people, even if they get salmonella, become ill with a bad stomach ache and similar symptoms. There is greater risk for those with inadequate immune systems — small children, senior citizens, AID’s — patients those who have undergone chemotherapy or radiation treatment recently, etc. In any case, even a large outbreak poses relatively small risks for individuals. A hundred people hospitalized would be a very large salmonella outbreak, that is only .00000015737% of our 305 million population. We will continue our traceback efforts to both determine the cause of this problem and prevent future foodborne illnesses.”

A truthful presentation such as this would have actually been a basis for discussion. Instead the blanket recommendations not to eat products create a “killer tomato” scare not justified by the facts.

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