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CNN Wrongly Blamed For
FDA’s Calculated Ambiguity

Over the July 4th weekend, news broke on the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak that we thought sufficiently important to give up some of our holiday and make sure we dispatched a Special Alert containing the information that the government would be doing enhanced inspection of certain items on Monday.

We thought this vital to get out because we felt many shippers and receivers might want to change their plans rather than have their product restricted from sale by FDA while awaiting the result of testing. We also thought that our readers at retail and at restaurants should be aware the supply chain might be disrupted.

The overall piece was entitled, Watch Your Orders: Product May Be Held At Border, and it included these paragraphs:

CNN is reporting that the US will “halt the shipment of ingredients common to Mexican cuisine from Mexico to the United States” starting Monday. Tommy Thompson, former Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which controls both FDA and CDC, has been briefed on the situation and he explained the intent:

“…the plan involves intercepting food samples at the border and sending them to laboratories to examine them for possible salmonella or E. coli.”

No official announcements have been made, but the intent is said to include holding cilantro, jalapeno peppers, Serrano peppers, scallions and bulb onions at the border.

As if we needed another example, this is a further illustration of the incompetence of FDA’s and CDC’s management of this outbreak and utter contempt for the business community that such information was delivered via CNN’s investigative reporting rather than a timely and official FDA communication.

Since we were one of the media outlets that spread CNN’s report, we knew we would have no choice but to comment or issue a correction and so immediately asked PMA to clarify if it was simply passing on FDA’s position or if it was making a statement of fact based on input from its members. Bryan was kind enough to send on a clarification on the morning of July 8 of how that July 7 statement had transpired:

Bryan SilbermannI wanted to take a moment to dispel a rumor that has been circulating regarding FDA closing the U.S./Mexico border and halting imports of several produce items that are being investigated in connection with the Salmonella saintpaul outbreak.

According to a top official at FDA with whom I’ve spoken today, this rumor appears to have originated from an erroneous news report by CNN over the weekend. CNN’s report was picked up by other media outlets and spread widely. Please note that FDA has no plans to close the border to these products, and has asked CNN to issue a correction to the story.

FDA did announce last week that, starting this week, it would be increasing its sampling of imported and domestically grown serrano and jalapeno peppers as well as cilantro. As is the case when FDA takes samples in this manner, the balance of the same product from the load being tested needs to be held until test results are available. These results typically take between 3 and 7 days to complete, depending on the outcome.

Again, I want to repeat that FDA has categorically denied any comments or plans to close the border to the products in question.

We immediately asked PMA to clarify if it was simply passing on FDA’s position or if it was making a statement of fact based on input from its members. Bryan was kind enough to send on a clarification on the morning of July 8 of how that July 7 statement had transpired:

My note came in response to a great deal of confusion caused by the erroneous media reports which CNN’s report appeared to have spurred. These reports led to member calls to PMA staff concerned about the accuracy and impact they were having on the marketplace and availability of product. For example, some major buyers were being told by their pepper suppliers that they would not have peppers (either jalapeno or Serrano) available because the border was being closed — a huge issue particularly for some restaurants that use a lot of these products. Other suppliers were being told by buyers that they didn’t want to order those products being sourced in Mexico because the buyers had heard the border was being closed or the products being “banned”. So a vicious circle of rumor and misinformation had been created.

I personally placed a call to Dr. David Acheson in the early afternoon yesterday and asked him to please clarify, preferably in writing, exactly what the FDA’s position was so that we could advise our members what FDA was doing and saying. At the same time I called the staff at the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas in Nogales to discuss what they were seeing and hearing on the ground at the crossing there. And I placed calls to some major distributors who source these products from the U.S. and Mexico.

The e-mail we sent out yesterday evening was based on the sum of all those conversations.

Early this morning I received the following written communication directly from Dr. Acheson at FDA:

David Acheson“As part of the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak investigation FDA has recently issued assignments to increase the testing of domestic and imported cilantro, basil, jalapeno and Serrano peppers. Regarding samples of the aforementioned imported produce, depending upon the port of entry and FDA resources, sampling may be conducted at the border or at destination. Produce items that have been sampled at the border can proceed to their destination but may not be distributed until FDA releases them.

Once the samples arrive in the laboratory it typically takes FDA 3-4 days to determine if salmonella is present or not. While the percentage of shipments being tested will vary, FDA currently anticipates that it will not be undertaking 100% testing of these specific products. In fact, the assignment specifically requests that a limited number of samples be collected from a variety of sources.

FDA will be monitoring the sampling assignment and the results and will adjust the assignment accordingly. The sampling assignment is to test for the presence of Salmonella and is not a “ban” on the importation of these products.”

We can hardly blame Bryan or PMA for trying their best to get their members the most accurate information. It is FDA that is first and foremost at fault for acting in such an ambiguous manner that Bryan felt the need to ask for clarification at all. After all, PMA is not the FDA’s newswire, and FDA has independent responsibility to speak clearly and in a way that minimizes disruptions to the flow of commerce consistent with its responsibilities to enhance public health.

Still we think PMA’s initial release was not artfully worded. In this case, PMA put itself in between a dispute between FDA and CNN, and it is not clear why PMA should put itself in that position.

Although, as PMA explained, FDA may have asked CNN for a retraction, it would have been advisable for PMA to point out that CNN had REFUSED to issue such a retraction claiming that its piece was accurate.

In fact, CNN’s report, Some Food from Mexico to Face Testing, was accurate. It never said that the government planned to “close the border.” It stated — what is undeniably true — that former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said this:

The inquiry, which initially focused solely on tomatoes, has expanded to include cilantro, jalapeno peppers, Serrano peppers, scallions and bulb onions, said Tommy Thompson, former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, who said he has been informed of the plan.

Thompson said the plan involves intercepting food samples at the border and sending them to laboratories to examine them for possible salmonella or E. coli.

As far as the substance of CNN’s report, some of our sources on the border are quibbling with details, saying that FDA is not testing bulb onions, and sources tell John McClung down at the Texas Produce Association that FDA also is testing basil. The bigger issue, though, is that nobody in the produce industry is going to be particularly interested in what words FDA uses to define its actions… they want to know the substantive nature of those actions.

The bottom line is that few producers are going to ship product that has overwhelming odds of being restricted from commerce and allowed to depreciate. Even if that 3-to-7-day hold for testing typically is accurate, there is no guarantee on that number and the FDA reserves the right to hold the stuff indefinitely and leave the owner with depreciated product, desperately trying to sell cilantro soup rather than cilantro.

Not only are the odds stacked against shippers and the time it takes for clearance, there also is no way of knowing from FDA’s cryptic statements how much more of the producers’ shipments will be tested. After all, it is one thing if FDA simply is ramping up its inspection regimen — say going from the usual half a percent to a full percent or even 2% of all shipments — but it is another thing entirely if FDA is going to inspect 50% or 90% of shipments.

We certainly have no idea what percentage of the loads are being inspected from reading Dr. Acheson’s statement to Bryan:

“FDA currently anticipates that it will not be undertaking 100% testing of these specific products.”

Technically this statement may not constitute “closing the border” on these products, but few shippers indeed are going to ship under a response like that. So for all practical purposes, one might as well say that FDA closed the border on these products. So finding out, exactly, what FDA had in mind was crucial.

It was good of PMA to solicit a written statement from FDA, but the content of FDA’s statement — with its calculated ambiguity — illustrates so much of what is wrong with management at FDA. This statement — with its only point being FDA might sample 99.9% — is reason enough why this agency, whose contempt for anyone outside its hallowed halls drips off its every word, needs a major overhaul.

If FDA requires samples of 10% of all shipments, let it say so. If it intends to sample 50%, let it say so. If it must sample every single shipment, let it say so. What purpose is served by not speaking the truth?

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