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Is FDA’s Concern Now An Obsession?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, September 19, 2006

The spinach recall continues to rock the industry. We dealt with the implications of the recall for fresh-cuts here, what it might mean for organic farming here and came up with ten points regarding the implications of the recall here. Yet there is more.

Ever since the Alar imbroglio of 1989, the industry has been presented with countless classes and articles regarding how to deal with a food safety crisis.

And the industry has learned well. From the individual companies to the national trade associations, we have executed these emergency plans and done so in a professional manner.

We have observed all the recommendations:

  • Be prepared
  • Be honest
  • Be cooperative
  • Be open
  • Don’t attempt to justify
  • Don’t speculate
  • Recall everything and take the loss so you can build consumer confidence.

It is a sign of how professional and mature the industry has become that these plans all existed, people were aware of their existence, trained to implement them and did so. Everyone needs to be praised.

The only problem is that we are not in a food safety crisis anymore. I, myself, would be willing to go to the spinach fields of Salinas, eat unwashed spinach from the field and do so in complete confidence that this was a safer activity than spending my time driving on a busy street. Indeed, I might even help my health since while munching on spinach, I couldn’t be chowing down at McDonald’s.

We need to change tactics right now, and we need to change laws for the future.

Yesterday I participated in a press teleconference with David Acheson, MD, who is leading this investigation at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and he seems knowledgeable and well-meaning.

The problem reminds me of the problem with all special prosecutors. Normally, prosecutors have to weigh investing resources in one case vs. investing them in another. Equally, public health official have to weigh things so, for example, they have to decide whether to put inspectors in every spinach field doing tests or to spend money increasing vaccinations of poor children. These are totally unrelated issues, but the life of a public relations official is a series of choices about how to allocate scarce resources.

The problem with Dr. Acheson is that, circumstances having caused him to focus on this issue, he now is applying an impractical standard. He seems to be waiting for the investigation to be complete so he can give some kind of guarantee-of-safety order. But the investigation will never be “complete”, and he will never be able to “guarantee” anyone’s safety.

But after days of intensive effort, here is what we know:

  1. There was an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak
  2. It happened on bagged spinach
  3. All cases that can be traced are traced back to one packing facility operated by Natural Selection Foods and spinach grown in the Salinas Valley.

You can’t read these facts and deduce from them that a farmer in the Carolinas should plow under the spinach that he was going to sell in bunches on the fresh market. Yet that is the effect of the current recommendations that nobody eat any fresh spinach — bagged or not.

The reality is that Dr. Acheson could research with unlimited resources for as long as he wants. Then we could have another E. Coli outbreak on his flight home from Salinas, because as long as birds fly, open fields are always vulnerable.

When asked at this press conference what Dr. Acheson wanted industry to do to prevent a future outbreak, Dr. Acheson mentioned that they should follow the “Good Agricultural Practices” that have previously been defined. This was an odd thing to say since he presented no evidence and didn’t even claim that someone hadn’t followed Good Agricultural Practices.

At this point, all the product that could possibly be related to this outbreak has been destroyed. If it wasn’t formally recalled, it was removed from the shelves by supermarkets.

The incubation period for E. coli is rarely more than three days, so the extent of the illness caused by this outbreak is pretty clear.

There has been widespread publicity regarding spinach so consumers are on notice.

It is clear that at this point, at a bare minimum, the FDA should obviously and immediately lift its recommendation against consumption of all spinach from all areas other than the Salinas Valley and all plants other than the Natural Selection facility implicated in this outbreak.

Reality is that there is nothing wrong with spinach from the Salinas Valley and, although I think prudence requires Natural Selection Foods to sanitize its plant and review its HACCP plan, those are pretty smart folks and I bet they are utilizing this down time to do just that anyway.

Look, if there was some real danger to eating spinach, I would be the first to support a ban on eating spinach. But it is like the spin of a roulette wheel — each spin is independent of the last one. I can’t tell you that someone won’t get E. coli from eating New Jersey spinach, but whether they will or not has nothing to do with this outbreak.

Dr. Acheson is not Ahab and the E. coli outbreak is not a great white whale. This banning of consumption is rapidly tumbling from a legitimate concern for public health into obsession.

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