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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



Whether It’s One Pepper
Or More, FDA’s Lack Of
Transparency Is Unacceptable

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, July 25, 2008

Our piece, FDA Finds One Jalapeno With Salmonella Saintpaul And asserts Authority To Bankrupt Innocent Parties As Part Of FDA’s Pursuit of Vague “Public Health” Goals, pointed out that coincidence is not causation and the mere fact that one pepper was found to be contaminated does not prove or even indicate that this jalapeno pepper — previously unknown as a vector for Salmonella — is actually at the root of this outbreak.

One distinguished food safety expert was a bit aghast as he read the press reports and asked us two pointed questions:

1. Was the detection actually a single jalapeno pepper or from a single composite sample of several taken from the distributor? I thought this must be a mistake in reporting by media.

No, it definitely was not a mistake in reporting. After initially pointing out that “one of the jalapeno pepper samples” had tested positive for Salmonella Saintpaul, FDA’s Dr. David Acheson, M.D., Associate Commissioner for Foods, said clearly — and in the singular:

“The discovery of this positive pepper was a result of the past weeks of investigations by FDA scientists and field agents…”

And…

“The pepper that we found was positive was grown on a farm in Mexico…”

One positive jalapeno in a sea of negative samples is very odd, so we have tried to get clarification. First, when asked, FDA spokespeople told us it is a composite sample — but they would not tell the world how many peppers were composited to make this sample. Then they said the word "composite" might be wrong and they would get back to us — which they never did. The FDA is also not withdrawing or clarifying Acheson’s singular comments although we gave them the opportunity to do so. So it is very odd.

2. Is the industry or others questioning the actions taken in the absence of reasonable disclosure of the total number and locations of jalapeno samples processed that were negative?

The lack of transparency is simply unacceptable For those congressional staffers who read these pages and those scientific peers whose opinions influence people at FDA — this is a place you can really help. More than any decision, it is the secrecy and manipulation of data that is causing outrage toward FDA.

The days are past when people could be expected to blindly accept whatever the FDA says as gospel. The meaning and significance of this positive finding can only be assessed in the context of “…the total number and locations of jalapeno samples processed that were negative.” So why will FDA not release the numbers?

Others have doubts about whether there was a positive sample at all. The fact that it showed up at this very small distributor is, in and of itself, interesting. Large companies don’t generally allow the FDA to simply take samples — they follow a process called shadowing, in which a third-party lab follows the FDA around and takes a sample everywhere the FDA takes a sample. So if the FDA takes a snippet of a pepper, the private lab takes a snippet of the pepper; if the FDA swabs a corner, the private lab swabs a corner.

This way if FDA claims a positive, there is an independent lab ready to confirm or deny that positive. If the private lab test is negative, it leads to searches for cross-contamination and other procedural errors in the FDA lab. In this case, because the distributor is so small, they probably had no idea what to do. Skeptical minds might wonder if this small distributor, with no epidemiologists, no consultants, no private labs, etc., wasn’t the perfect choice to take a fall.

We received a letter from an industry member with a long and painful memory of how FDA has functioned in the past:

It was just 2 grapes in one box, out of 190,000 boxes on the Almeria Star back on March 13, 1989, as I mentioned in a letter you published under the title of Friday The 13th, 1989… Important Date In Produce History.

In the cyanide scare, it turned out the find was at best a ‘mistake’ in the FDA’s lab, or a hoax to show the FDA and State Department ‘were on the job’, after Lockerbie and the Alar scar.

Don’t be surprised if this episode is not staged.

Besides, Jalapenos, at least in my diet, would have the same results as Salmonella.

— Richard A. Eastes
Director of Special Projects
Ballantine Produce Co., Inc.

Of course, one doesn’t have to believe in nefarious activities to recognize mistakes happen. Just over a year ago, we published this article: Church Brothers/True Leaf Recalls, Then “Unrecalls’ Spring Mix, Arugula After Testing Mishap. The piece profiled how a lab error led to a contaminated sample. What assurance is there that the same thing hasn’t happened in this case?

Jalapenos are a very tiny and insignificant part of the produce industry. It would be expedient to accept the FDA’s indictment of them so that tomatoes and other produce items could be exonerated.

But it would be wrong.

The industry needs to view the indictment of jalapenos with the seriousness it would if bananas were indicted. Indeed the jalapeno people need the industry more than the banana people do because they have fewer resources of their own.

One pepper, two grapes… these are ridiculous standards and the industry should stand up and object.

How many samples were taken?

Where were the samples taken? When?

Which lab processed the positive?

Is there any possibility of cross-contamination?

If the industry just rolls over because jalapeno peppers are a small item, it will be rolling over with larger items in the future.

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