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Consensus From Unknown Experts Leaves Cause To Err
On Side Of Caution

In the more moderate joint produce association letter sent to Walt Disney World Co., there was a point made that spoke to how food safety metrics ought to be designed when we have imperfect knowledge:

“…some of the recommendations in your document are inherently based on opinion and judgment where science is insufficient, such as distance of production from animal grazing. Science today cannot tell us an exact distance, and we would therefore argue that expert consensus among industry, academia and government is the best way to address such unknown scientific questions until research can provide better evidence for risk-based decision-making. Otherwise, we are faced with an escalating, unscientific approach — if a 100-foot buffer is good; a 1,000-foot buffer must be better. Or why not 1,000 yards; or perhaps a mile, or two, or three. This is indeed a slippery slope without real science to guide these judgments.”

In the absence of certainty, it is reasonable enough to say that we should rely on expert consensus. This is a reasonable proposition — in the abstract. The problem is that this specific letter was being written to some of the top Quality Assurance people in the world. What kind of “consensus” can be said to exist if the QA departments at Wal-Mart, Disney, Darden, McDonald’s, Avendra and Publix do not share in the consensus?

We get back to the issue of who, precisely, is part of this consensus. For months we have urged first WGA and then the California Leafy Greens Advisory Board to make public the names of the people on the committee to draft the metrics. As we said in our piece, WGA’s Secret Science Panel:

Let us ask five simple questions:

  1. Who is on this committee and how were they selected?
  2. Do they have any conflicts of interest?
  3. Have they each endorsed the draft GAP document?
  4. Have they been asked to draw up dissenting reports on areas where they would like to see different standards?
  5. What was the charge given the scientists?

These are not insignificant points. If you want people to refrain from proposing their own standards on the grounds that a consensus exists, you better let them in on who, precisely, agrees on this consensus.

Let us put aside the QA departments of all the members of the Food Safety Leadership Council and just throw out a couple of other well known names.

Is Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H. and Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University of Minnesota, part of the consensus? As we mentioned here, when announcing that Fresh Express was donating $2 million to fund food safety research, Dr. Osterholm is chairman of the panel that gives out this money. Yet he is a consultant to Fresh Express. In fact, he was described in the USA Today article, ‘Fresh Express leads the pack’ in produce safety, in this way:

Osterholm has been a paid consultant to Fresh Express since 1999. He says it is the only food company he consults with because it’s made a major commitment to food safety and quality.

“I’m not here to help them sell more produce,” Osterholm says. “We want the Maytag Repairman Syndrome here. We don’t want another outbreak.”

Yet in that same article, Fresh Express articulated some standards that are different from those of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement — including the one-mile buffer zone standard that WGA specifically attacked in its letter and the joint association letter questions.

Presumably Dr. Osterholm endorses the Fresh Express one-mile buffer zone — so how can he be considered part of the “consensus” that opposes this?

The same USA Today article quotes Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety. Here is what he has to say:

“From what I’ve seen, Fresh Express leads the pack,” in terms of food safety, says Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety and a longtime advocate of tougher regulations for the packaged-salad and fresh-cut produce industry.

Doyle won’t eat packaged salads. He says the process, including the mixing of leafy greens inside a processing plant, increases risk of contamination.

Well if he won’t even eat the product, in what conceivable way can we call him part of the consensus that the California Marketing Agreement’s metrics are optimal for food safety?

There is a real question whether there is a scientific consensus around the metrics adopted by the California Leafy Greens Advisory Board or whether there has merely been an agreement to establish those standards.

It is also unclear what the supposed “consensus” is actually supposed to be based upon — that the existing metrics are optimal for food safety or are the metrics the optimal compromise between food safety and expense?

This strikes us as very significant.

In one sense, our point here is simply that we can’t have it both ways. We can’t have a secret procedure where unknown people of unidentified expertise decide on standards in unknown ways and then claim a scientific consensus that immunizes the standards from objection. So we must develop a more transparent process for developing these metrics.

In another sense, though, we probably have to recognize that some organizations are simply going to be more conservative than others. The risk that Disney runs if a child dies at Disney World from eating contaminated food served at Mickey’s Kitchen is different, not merely in degree, but in kind from the risk a supermarket runs by selling product with the same result.

Quick, name two supermarkets that sold E. coli 0157:H7-laced spinach in the fall of 2006? You probably can’t do it. But nobody will ever forget should a child die on her “Make a Wish” trip to Disney World.

So, if there is doubt… if the science is not clear and Disney wants to be conservative and have a five-mile buffer zone between produce grown for it and a feedlot, who can say they are wrong? It makes more sense to say that they are very conservative, cautious in the protection of their customers and their brand.

Obviously, they have to pay enough or buy enough to entice people into growing to this rigorous standard. But that is different than arguing, as the industry seems to be doing, that Disney would be doing something morally wrong by electing to err on the side of caution.

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