On Christmas day, the LA Times published an important article that really capsulated the dilemma the produce industry is dealing with. The piece is entitled Federal Science is Lacking on Food Contamination, and the basic thesis is this:
Recurring outbreaks of food-borne illness from contaminated produce are “unacceptable” in today’s society, the government says. But when it comes to preventing new occurrences, the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t done much of the basic research that would let it write regulations to fix the problem.
Six years after the FDA first issued general guidance to the produce industry on how it might prevent contamination from microbes such as E. coli 0157:H7, experts say federal regulators still can’t answer key questions.
For example, does water used for irrigating crops have to be clean enough for people to drink? And since cow manure is a common source of E. coli, how far from a cow pasture does a spinach patch have to be? Across the road? A quarter-mile away? A mile?
“There are no specific criteria for producers to follow, no specific criteria that can be enforced,” said Michael R. Taylor, who as head of the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service in 1995 launched a testing program for E. coli that led to major sanitary improvements at meatpacking plants.
As the article points out, regulation and inspections are futile as we don’t know what the regulation should be or what standard we should inspect to meet:
Scientific research is needed for such esoteric matters as the proper distance between a cow pasture and a spinach patch because federal regulations carry the weight of law. Growers, packers and shippers must spend money to comply with government rules. And consumers wouldn’t be helped much if new requirements were based on flawed assumptions.
“The idea of sending inspectors out right away is fairly useless, because without the basic science to set workable standards, you can’t know what will work,” said William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner for policy, planning and legislation.
The problem is a lack of money for research. FDA doesn’t have enough money, and the food programs are getting squeezed partly because the drug component is getting a larger share of the budget. USDA spends most of its research budget on meat products. Of course, logically faced with a public health need, you would think the agencies would ask for more money. This article says it isn’t happening:
“FDA isn’t in a position to ask for resources,” said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the foods division and the agency’s point man in the recent outbreaks. “What FDA does is make optimal use of the resources it gets.”
The Pundit thinks Acheson should resign for saying such a stupid thing. Of course, the FDA can ask for more money. Every agency in Washington does it every day. They ask directly, to the White House and the Office of Management and Budget and indirectly by going to friendly members of Congress and explaining their needs.
Such passivity is unacceptable in the current circumstance. If Acheson and his cohorts at FDA really believe what they are saying, they need to be replaced by a more energetic crew.
In any case, the lack of science is leaving the industry to guess and gamble. As Trevor Suslow, an agricultural extension agent at UC Davis — who we interviewed here — says in this LA Times piece:
“The idea is that somehow all the stakeholders will get together and in the absence of science and data arrive at some kind of reasonable consensus…”
In fact the self-proclaimed consumer advocates are basically worried that the industry might want to have a reason to undertake changes:
Consumer groups are concerned that the lack of scientific research will lead to more delays in produce safety rules. “I don’t want to see this tied up for another couple of years while they investigate all the science,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, the director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
No, she wants the industry to just do something, whether that something will be effective or not doesn’t really matter.
Such is the current state of affairs.