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Pundit’s Mailbag — Letters Pour In On CSPI’s Highly Deceptive Riskiest Foods List

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 16, 2009

We ran a special edition of the Pundit when we read the scurrilous report put out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Our Special Report featured an article, titled An Opportunity Missed: ‘Ten Riskiest Foods’ List Highly Deceptive, Worse Than Useless to Consumers — CSPI’s Quest For The Headlines Means America Misses Out On a Rational Discussion About Risk.

We were fortunate to see the piece picked up and linked to by many organizations. Scientific web sites, legal web sites and political web sites all brought the message to many influential people beyond our industry readership.

It was also a pleasure to hear from academics who decided to use the piece to frame a discussion of the CSPI study.

We also received many letters. Here is sampling:

Our company has had many products given a “thumbs up” by CSPI in their Nutrition Action newsletter. I know how influential they can be. Our 800 line and inbox get plenty busy with readers inquiring where they can find the featured product. When CSPI is on your side, it can be a great thing; when they are not — it’s not so great.

Thank you for calling them on the carpet for what really is a headline chasing, politically posturing announcement. Scaring consumers away from certain foods and skewing the numbers is an injustice not only to the products listed, but the hundreds of families and hard-working people who produce them daily.

Our industry is often accused of being “too quiet” when it comes to defending ourselves. It’s not that we don’t try. I remember my friend Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin flying down to Yuma, on her own dime, at a moment’s notice, to be interviewed for the NBC Dateline segment about leafy greens. Alas, this bright and articulate family farmer, the mother of twin boys, didn’t make the segment. The media can be funny that way…

Love it or hate it, the Internet is starting to level the playing field, taking the power away from network producers or big city editors who consistently slant stories to their desired angle. The Pundit has given us the opportunity to present the facts while reaching hundreds of thousands of people with our side of the story.

You have not only given our industry a voice, you have given us a roar.

— Lorri A. Koster
VP of Marketing
Co-Chairman, Board of Directors
Mann Packing Company Inc.
Salinas, California

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Congratulations! You have outdone yourselves with this editorial. You are so right on in so many ways I cannot list them all.

I am a member of the California Grocers Association (CGA) government advisory committee and we listened to California Assemblyman Mike Feuer chide us for not supporting his “food safety” (quotes mine) legislation during the past session. During his talk he referenced “the miracle” that there are not more illnesses resulting from tainted food because of the lack of, you guessed it, wonderful government bureaucrats!

Apparently he defines the miraculous as tens of thousands of dedicated employees working everyday to produce high quality, health foods in this state and thousands of dedicated QA folks watching them. This is not even to mention the financial resources dedicated to this system.

— Daniel Barth
General Manager
Super King Markets
“International Foods and Super King Prices’
Los Angeles, California

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Great response in regards to CSPI study.

— Ed Boutonnet
President
Ocean Mist Farms
Castroville, California

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The "Pundit" asks: “Is there no sense of decency at the Center for Science in the Public Interest?”

Apparently not. This is the same tactic they’ve watched the Environmental Working Group use for years to attack the use of pesticides, publishing and holding an annual press conference to promote their equally useless and deceptive Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in produce.

— Richard W. VanVranken
Agricultural Agent
Rutgers — New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station
County Extension Department Head
Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County
Mays Landing, New Jersey

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As a major dealer in potatoes, I can only thank you for the Pundit discussion of the CSPI listing of potatoes as a dangerous food to eat.

For the opponents of the work that this group does, it is extremely positive for you to so thoughtfully and rationally expose the group as being sensational and not fair. The allegation intrinsic in the idea that potatoes are listed as a dangerous food is ridiculous. As you point out so well, the “potato” incidents were all related to processed food that was not handled properly by consumers and or distributors.

Listing potatoes as dangerous is unfair and a great focal point to drive this supposed “intelligent” lady to the dirt. She should leave her current job and help us harvest our record potato crop, unless she wants to peel potatoes and help monitor our processors that go out of their way to keep food safe.

Shame on her and bless you for your assistance.

It is the wide recognition of your credibility as represented by your being awarded The Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity that enables you to fill a role nobody else can.

In this instance, you might want to keep me anonymous so that I don’t get her and her followers attacking me!

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RE: An Opportunity Missed: ‘Ten Riskiest Foods’ List Highly Deceptive, Worse Than Useless to consumers — CSPI’s Quest For The Headlines Means America Misses Out On A Rational Discussion About Risk

Damn — remind me not to piss you off.

Bill Marler
Managing Partner
Marler Clark
Seattle, Washington

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Thanks for your critique of CSPI’s ten riskiest list. I say this realizing that on a per-ounce consumed basis, sprouts are relatively risky.

I did some arithmetic on the CSPI statement: “Between 1990 and 2005, there were 713 outbreaks and 34,049 individual cases linked to produce in the CSPI database.”

Divided by 15 years = 2269 reported illnesses per year divided by 365 = 6.2 illnesses per day divided by 300,000,000 people in the US = .00000002 illnesses per day per person.

I’m sure there’s something wrong with my math.

What do you get?

— Bob Sanderson
Jonathan’s Sprouts
East Freetown, Massachusetts

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Excellent, excellent article!

Sean Fox
Professor of Agricultural Economics
Kansas State University
Manhattan, Kansas

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Excellent dismantling of the CSPI scare piece, Jim. Keep up the good work!

— Bob Swartwout
Director of Business Development
Gold Coast Packing Inc.
Santa Maria, California

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Listening to a national radio program (WLS), they listed the CSPI as a self-appointed group of TWO individuals with a fax machine who get government funds to voice their vegetarian views.

The show indicated that there is very little scientific basis for their reports.

Perhaps this group needs additional research, to set the record straight.

— Paul Scott
Sales Manager
Alliance Shippers, Inc.
Orland Park, Illinois

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Today’s article on the ten riskiest foods is by far the best article you have written to date. Spot on. Shame on these guys. Please forward your write-up on to them and ask for a response.

— Chris Nelson
CEO
Mixtec Group
Pasadena, California

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Harsh, but agree with you on many levels. So many problems with using the surveillance data that way…

Michelle Jay-Russell
Food Safety and Security Specialist
Western Institute for Food Safety and Security
University of California, Davis
Davis, California

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Thanks for your well-thought out response to the “Ten Riskiest Foods” article. Your comments on potatoes were perfect.

— Frank W. Muir
President/CEO
Idaho Potato Commission
Eagle, ID

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Mr. Prevor, what irony — at the exact moment I received your email, “CSPI Study Highly Deceptive,” I was discussing the CSPI study with an attorney in regard to a legal case involving possible sources of an outbreak strain of Escherichia coli O157.

My experience with E. coli O157 goes all the way back to the original studies at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed that this was a new and important pathogen. I remember our discussion on whether onions or lettuce could be the source of the E. coli O157 strain that caused the two original outbreaks at McDonald’s Restaurant. I remember being fully gowned and feeding onions to monkeys to see if it made them ill (it did not). There were too few monkeys to try lettuce.

I enjoy your email updates, so keep them coming. I think you will enjoy the motto that I chose for my company and given below — Information is the currency of democracy.

— John J. Farmer III, Ph.D.
Scientist Director,
United States Public Health Service (Retired)
Silver Hill Associates
Stone Mountain, Georgia

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The biggest disservice is not including all food on a risk-adjusted basis. The consumer has no clue what foods are FDA-regulated and what are not.

Especially confounding when the CSPI goal is to increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.

— Bruce Taylor
Chairman & CEO
Taylor Farms
Salinas, California

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Thanks for the special report in the “Pundit” about the “Ten Riskiest Foods.” I am fuming about the report since I first read it.

— Lee Smith
Publisher & Editorial Director
DELI BUSINESS
Boca Raton, Florida

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I am flattered that you took the time to trace the link to your website from the post on my blog. I have actually read some or even large parts of articles on your website posts and have learned plenty — it’s an excellent source for food safety and other information.

The rather sheltered nature of the blog is by design. I am using it for a sophomore level course (here at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln) entitled “Contemporary Issues in Food Science”. Students are required to post their assignments and comments on the blog, and although I wanted the blog to have the feel of a real website, I did not want it to be quite so public, largely so the students would be more willing to express opinions and to protect their privacy. Thus, it does not show up in web searches, and the only way one can find the site is by knowing the URL or via tracking features on the links (as you evidently were able to do).

Jim, I again appreciate your comments — at class tomorrow, you can be sure the students will learn all about our exchange, as this turned into a terrific educational moment.

Bob Hutkins
Khem Shahani Professor of Food Science
University of Nebraska
Department of Food Science and Technology
Lincoln, Nebraska

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You’re the best, Jim.

— Lee Cantley
President
Purity Assurance Technologies, Inc.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

We thank all our contributors for their kind words.

To Lorri Koster, we extend a roar of thanks and are pleased that we can use this new technology to communicate effectively with people far beyond the trade. We spend a lot of time with TV producers and editors and it is very difficult to get a good story out there. Topics such as scandal, negligence, abandonment of duty, etc., all titillate the consumer media, but taking care of business and trying to do the right things are not typically much of a story for them.

It is easy to criticize, and some of these criticisms are justified, but think about the oldest rule in journalism: Dog bites man is not a story. Man bites dog — that is front page news!

To Daniel Barth, we express many thanks and agree that a core problem at the intersection of food safety and public policy is that so many policymakers misunderstand who makes food safe. They really think that a handful of bureaucrats hold back countless thousands of malevolent food industry personnel. We hope Mr. Barth was able to make some headway with the State Assemblymen, but the problem starts at the top.

When President Obama nominated Dr. Margaret Hamburg as head of FDA, he gave a speech and we wrote a piece for The Weekly Standard, a political magazine based in Washington, DC, that was titled Food Fight: Obama’s ‘Government First’ Attitude Puts Food Safety At Risk. We explained the point this way:

…The government does not farm or process anything. It does not distribute, market or cook, and it cannot possibly monitor the hundreds of millions of people in over 100 countries and every state, from field to fork, that have a role in food safety.

Food in the United States is generally safe for four reasons: First, because there are moral precepts that make the vast majority of producers intent on doing no harm to their customers. Second, because the value of a brand and a company dissipate rapidly if they sicken or kill their customers. Third, because those who prepare meals at home mostly love those they cook for and so try to serve wholesome foods. Fourth, because the United States is an affluent, western society with advanced technologies and procedures for making foods safe and we are both willing and able to spend money to have safer food.

The article explains more but this vision that food is made safe primarily because federal inspectors do something is both incorrect and highly insulting to the many good people up and down the supply chain.

Daniel Barth’s letter also reveals an important point: that some people have an inordinate faith in government and official action not justified by the facts. We have shown that New York City health inspectors did not prevent the rat infestation at the KFC in Manhattan. Government health inspectors did not keep the 7th Street Market ship-shape. And all the beef and poultry that have foodborne illness recalls… these are all produced with a Federal government inspector on the premises.

We have referred previously to the Kellogg-Briand Pack that outlawed war — just before World War II was started. So it is with many well intentioned groups, they see a wrong and they want to pass a law — whether the law will do anything is completely beside the point. They want the good feeling they get from doing something.

To Ed Boutonnet, sincere appreciation for his kind words.

And to Rick VanVranken, thanks for raising a topic for another day. The use of fear as a fund-raising tool is nothing new, and it looks like pesticides are coming into focus. We ran a piece about what is going on in Europe, and we suspect the same anti-scientific attitude is approaching on pesticides in the US. There will be many battles ahead.

To our potato dealer, we say thank you for your blessing and pledge to continue the good fight.

To Bill Marler, noted plaintiff’s attorney and the Pundit’s “boss” at a continuing legal education program focused on food safety that we did together in Seattle, we point out that our passion is for the truth. Including the truth that plaintiff’s attorneys play an important role in our system. The issue is this: safety in most things is a continuum. So we can always build stronger cars or safer fields, but society has many values so we balance the desire for safety with a desire for economy, for example. This works out better for 99% of the people, but how does society offer recompense to those who are hurt as a result of this balancing act? It has its inefficiencies but, in our system, it is the legal profession and the court system that take care of these people.

As far as getting angry, we are strictly in the Harry Truman school of speaking out. When told “Give ‘em Hell , Harry!” President Truman replied, “I don’t give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it is hell!”

To Bob Sanderson, let us assure him that his math is correct. The only qualification is that many people do not report their illnesses; there was one study that said it was 38 people ill for each reported case.

Even if true, of course, 38 times an infinitesimal number is still an infinitesimal number. And there is good reason to think that simply multiplying is deceptive. After all, the more serious an illness one has, the more likely one is to go to a hospital and get tested. So it is the less serious illnesses that tend to not get reported.

It is one of the magnificent features of our civilization that we place such high value on each human life. Yet, in public policy, as we alluded to in answering Bill Marler above, making choices are inevitably required. We know how to build cars that would virtually guarantee the occupants would be safe in an accident. The problem is these cars would be heavy and expensive, like tanks without guns, so we don’t mandate them.

We don’t require that every bell pepper be grown in a semiconductor-like “clean room” and that is the public policy choice. Where we fault our politicians is for failing to articulate that choice so people could understand it.

After the CSPI report came out, someone asked the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, what he thought about the report. He responded this way: “Until we get the number of foodborne illnesses down to zero, and the number of hospitalizations down to zero, and the number of deaths down to zero, we still have work to do.”

Unfortunately these kinds of platitudes have come to substitute for thought in our government today. Those words are virtually useless as a guide to policy and, in fact, he doesn’t even mean it.

Notice, he didn’t say that we need to irradiate anything we can, although that would, without doubt, make many foods completely safe. This is because whatever value he places on reducing foodborne illness, it is less than he places on avoiding angering people who don’t like irradiation.

Still, Bob Sanderson’s math hangs in the air like a question not asked: Why is it when there is a foodborne illness outbreak, FDA never actually gives an estimate of the likelihood of getting ill from consuming some product? Mostly it is because they would sound ridiculous and nobody would pay attention to them.

Appreciations to Professor Fox for his kindness and to Bob Swartwout for his note.

Paul Scott heard some joking banter on the radio, but CSPI is a comparatively large and well-financed organization with an annual budget of around $17 million. The strategy they often use is to issue a press release with headlines that are overstated, often seemingly designed to help fundraising or to scare everyone into rushing to pass government regulation. Then in some footnote or text, they point out that what they just scared the whole world about is very rare and most unlikely.

We don’t think they need much study as they are highly predictable.

We thank Chris Nelson for his nice note and assure him that they have plenty of subscriptions to the Pundit and, in any case, CSPI found the piece all by themselves. We would urge Chris to not hold his breath while waiting for a response.

To Michelle Jay-Russell, who approaches these things as a scientist, we take her agreement with pride and, if we were harsh, we apologize. Yet we think that this attack was especially hurtful precisely because the produce industry invited Caroline Smith DeWaal, Director of Food Safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, to serve on the advisory board of the Center for Produce Safety, located with Michelle on the UC Davis campus. The industry opened our collective “home” to her, and so the fact that she did not stop this report and say we have to be fair was a horrible betrayal of trust.

To Frank Muir, appreciations for the generous words.

To John J. Farmer, thanks for a little history and, indeed, we concur: Information is the currency of democracy.

Many thanks to Bruce Taylor for pointing out the great dilemma at the core of these types of complaints: The high likelihood exists that fomenting hysteria will lead people to forgo healthy options and eat in a less healthy way.

Yet the CSPI makes no attempt to balance the acute risk of pathogens against the chronic risk on obesity.

Many thanks to Lee Smith for writing. In private conversations, she has pointed out how many of the supposed “food safety” problems are focused on home-cooked items… homemade potato salad, homemade ice cream, etc. If you really want people to be safe, tell them to buy commercial product!

To Professor Bob Hutkins, we are just thrilled that we could help add some balance to the course and help your students.

And we have to tell Lee Cantley that we are blushing.

To all our correspondents, both those we published today and those we will publish in the next few days, and to those we may never fit in, thank you for all your kind words and for weighing in on such an important matter.

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