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Special Edition IX — Salmonella Saintpaul Outbreak…Concerns About FDA/CDC

Four Talking Points
For Dr. Acheson To Consider

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, July 3, 2008

Dr. David Acheson, FDA’s Associate Commissioner for Foods, devoted a part of the Tuesday evening press conference to looking to the future and ways to do things better. It was truly thin gruel, and in many ways highly insulting to the produce trade.

First, he suggested the possibility of an “interagency task force,” which pretty much made us yawn. It is shocking to learn they don’t have one already. What they really need, though, is not so much: “better coordination” but someone in charge. Think Dwight D. Eisenhower in World War II. He didn’t have an ”inter-army task force” with the British; Montgomery was under Eisenhower’s command. If next time one person doesn’t come out and say, “I am in charge of the federal government’s actions regarding this outbreak,” we will have failed.

Second, Dr. Acheson gave this pointless oration on the “legal and ethical” obligations of the industry. In the first place, the guy has some nerve. Where does he come off lecturing the industry about its ethical obligations? Who does Dr. Acheson think he is — Moses? Jesus Christ? Muhammad? Buddha? Aristotle? On what basis does he assume he has the special competency to dictate ethics to industry members? He frankly owes the trade an apology for his presumptiveness.

Why doesn’t Dr. Acheson give a speech reflecting on his own ethical obligations and discuss how bankrupting tomato farmers, depriving migrant workers of their source of sustenance and urging poor people living on food stamps to throw out perfectly good food comport with his own ethical obligations?

It was a truly disgusting line. The Secretary of Health and Human Services should take him to the woodshed and remind him that he is not the moral superior of industry members. If members of the trade require ethical guidance, they are quite capable of getting it from their archbishops, not the Associate Commissioner for Foods of the FDA.

Beyond that, the repetition that industry members have both a legal and ethical obligation to provide food that is safe, wholesome and free of contamination would have been more helpful if it showed any evidence of serious thought.

That food ought to be safe is unobjectionable. So should cars, airplanes, trains and whatnot. But we don’t define “safe” in these contexts as meaning never an accident.

Throwing into his oration the notion that the industry has an ethical and legal obligation to produce food “free of contamination” is a sign that Dr. Acheson is engaging in cant rather than a serious assessment of the situation. Yes, that is how things have been interpreted legally, but there is a real question as to whether that makes any sense as a public policy.

In fact, there are serious trade offs between the cost of enhancing food safety and the ability to provide the world with low cost fresh food. Serious people now realize that we have to abandon the delusion of a zero-tolerance policy.

It is in many ways a shame that the industry confronted these issues in the context of the spinach outbreak of late 2006. We were dealing with processed product and dealing with product that the industry elected to market as “no need to wash” and “ready to eat” — those marketing phrases carry with them additional obligations to consumers.

However, growers of bulk, field-grown commodities are offering the world food raised in the earth and exposed to all elements. If consumers are really concerned about safety, perhaps because of a compromised immune system, they should cook the food well and not eat it raw.

Ethical obligations are — Dr. Acheson’s pronouncements excepted — complex. One farm technique will lead to deaths by starvation because people cannot afford the food; still another may produce plentiful food, but the occasional foodborne illness will afflict.

There are also other ethical obligations — say truth-telling — and so the industry must make certain, as we discussed here, that we are honest when we market product to those with immature or compromised immune systems.

Law is also a complex subject. The whole legal system in this area is best understood as the way society elects to compensate the people damaged by society’s unwillingness to pay the price to grow everything in an Intel-like “clean room”

One of the most important lessons of this outbreak is that we can’t leap to action. There are thousands of cases of Salmonella every month. The FDA/CDC have adopted a bizarre position. As long as they don’t see an illness, everything is OK, but if an illness happens to be brought to their attention, they will pursue the source more diligently than the crusaders pursued the Holy Grail.

The future must be built upon reasonable expectations for the prevalence of pathogens and then much effort to continuously make food safer and safer.

Third, we have come to wish that Dr. Acheson would just stop talking about the produce industry. Every time there is one of these calls, he comes up with some new tidbit that he shares with all the reporters. It is not typically that he is wrong, but his information is out of context and atypical. It is as if a Martian came to the earth and we educated him on the planet by having Ripley’s Believe It or Not make a presentation.

This most recent call, Dr. Acheson blamed the industry for the slowness of the traceback, claiming that “typically” the traceback records are maintained on paper as opposed to electronically. He basically portrays the produce industry as a bunch of hicks without computers.

How could this possibly be true? We know Wal-Mart is involved because New Mexico named them. Wal-Mart probably accounts for about 25% of all tomatoes sold at retail, and every single one of its suppliers has a computer, and they are all on Retail Link.

The big fast food chains, such as McDonald’s, Burger King, etc., certainly do not buy from anyone without a computer, and they run audits to check traceback ability. So, what is Dr. Acheson being told?

In addition, as revealed in an interview we ran here with Jim Gorny of the University of California, Davis, it is the epidemiology that is slow, not the traceback.

We are not saying that the industry can’t do better on electronic record-keeping and enhanced traceability. It can and, of course, we are working on it with a whole initiative in this area. But to say that this is “typical” seems highly unlikely.

Fourth, Dr. Acheson’s final point was to urge Congress to give FDA the authority to establish mandatory “preventative controls” as was called for in the FDA’s Food Protection Plan produced last November. Mandatory preventative controls is referring to the ability to create rules requiring producers to observe certain conduct — say put traps ever 50 feet — as opposed to inspect for safety after the production is done.

We have no particular objection to this. As we mentioned here, though, we think it is a bit of red herring. It implies that this outbreak is a function of growers refusing to do the right thing — a proposition for which there is, literally, no evidence.

What actually concerns us, as we mentioned here, is that FDA treats all growers the same. No amount of ”preventative controls” exempted a grower from the FDA’s advisory for consumers not to eat certain types of tomatoes from certain places.

If the FDA really wants to enhance food safety in the future, it will look carefully at revising this approach. Had FDA only said that retailers and restaurants should exclusively buy tomatoes from producers that are third-party audited to meet X standard, it would have encouraged massive investment in food safety in all sectors of the produce trade.

As it stands the message is, “Don’t bother!” That is dangerous.

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