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Pundit’s Mailbag — Del Monte Fresh’s Lawsuit Against FDA Draws Attention To Other Mistakes And Policy Flaws

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, September 12, 2011

Our piece Del Monte Fresh Stands Up To FDA’s Bullying Tactics brought this word of support from Guatemala:

Exactly the same thing happened to raspberries from Guatemala a few years ago with the never-proven allegations of contamination with Cyclospora, and they totally killed this industry in the country.

The pattern is the same against countries that don’t have enough resources to defend themselves. This time, Guatemala had the support of a major transnational company. For the sake of the produce industry, let’s hope Del Monte succeeds.

It was about time that somebody stood up against these abuses!  

Clark MacDonald
Deputy General Manager

Frutesa Tropicales De Guatemala
Guatemala City, Guatemala

We certainly appreciate the support as our epidemiologist friends have been calling with much the opposite sentiment.

And we don’t want to say that epidemiology is not a valid way of identifying the source of foodborne illness.

In the 1996 incident, The New England Journal of Medicine ran a piece titled, An Outbreak in 1996 of Cyclosporiasis Associated with Imported Raspberries, which concluded:

This large outbreak of cyclosporiasis in North America in 1996 was associated with the consumption of Guatemalan raspberries. The outbreak illustrates the need to consider that a local cluster of foodborne illness may be part of a widespread outbreak and to pursue investigations of the source of the implicated vehicle.

Just as it is preferable if we can convict a criminal based on an eyewitness at the crime scene, fingerprints on the gun and DNA scattered throughout the crime scene, so it is certainly preferable if we can have genetic evidence tying a foodborne illness to a particular point of production.

Sometimes, though, criminals do get convicted based on circumstantial evidence, and so, sometimes, foodborne illness has be traced back that way as well.

In the Del Monte case, the government epidemiologists say they have a case, but Del Monte has an epidemiologist who says otherwise.

To us, though, the public policy issue doesn’t depend on the accuracy or not of the FDA’s epidemiology. The issue is whether the use of Import Alerts to ban shipments into the US from particular companies is a sensible strategy to deal with food safety concerns.

We have no problem saying that if any producer hurts a consumer, it should be liable for any damage it has caused. But banning people from business — people who are not known to have done anything wrong — is not appropriate.

In fact, we don’t use this standard in any other part of life. Think about when an airline crashes. We may check the airline to make sure it has appropriate standards for procurement, hiring, maintenance and training, and certainly all crashes are investigated in the hope of determining the cause and helping all airlines avoid crashes. But when the Air France Flight 447 disappeared over the Atlantic, Air France wasn’t banned from flying until “corrective action” was taken. Airbus wasn’t banned from selling planes until “corrective action” was taken.

We would say that as a matter of public policy, we can establish whatever standards we wish to ensure safer food, recognizing that the science is imperfect and there often is a trade-off between cost and food safety.

These standards can call for buffer zones, traps, water testing, etc. We can require audits testifying to the maintenance of certain standards, etc.

Once, however, a producer has met those standards and therefore no corrective action is required to meet those standards, deciding to put a grower out of business is pointless. If you have five farms right next to each other and all are meeting the same standards, the fact that one, by dint of bad luck had an episodic food safety incident doesn’t prove that next season’s production from that farm is more dangerous than production from the other four farms.

There are plenty of food safety problems. We have buyers who waive their own standards, there are shippers that don’t do what they say they do, and there are others that just can’t or won’t keep up with what today’s technology and buyer and governmental standards require.

This is all the more reason why the FDA should assume that episodic food safety incidents will occur and focus instead on high standards of preventive action.

An airline with rigorous procurement, hiring, training and maintenance standards is an exemplary airline — even if it has an airplane crash. To drive it out of business so that people have to fly on lesser airlines makes no sense.

Equally a cantaloupe farm that meets world class standards is world class. To close that particular farm and leave people to eat cantaloupes grown on lesser farms does not contribute to public safety.

Many thanks to Clark MacDonald for weighing in on this important issue.

 

 

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