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If The Industry Doesn’t Hang Together…Surely We Will All Hang Separately

The industry has pretty much come to the conclusion that something must be done. We simply can no longer allow situations in which the FDA causes industrywide dislocations — as it did in the spinach crisis of late-2006 and is now happening with the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, where first the tomato industry was crushed and now the FDA is marching through the “salsa bowl” crushing additional industries.

Our efforts are all to the good. We’ve spent some time brainstorming with some of the staffers on the Hill, and it is clear that thoughtful people are looking for ways to both enhance public health and avoid the ruin of whole industries.

We need, however, to take a principled approach. What is happening with tomatoes or on the Mexican border is not wrong just because a lot of people and large industries are being damaged. It is wrong because it violates import principles:

  1. On a prudential basis, it fails to measure the cost vs. the benefits of each action.

  2. On a management-procedures basis, it is wrong because of a lack of safeguards to protect against rash decision-making, the influence of corruption, etc.

  3. On a competence basis, it is wrong because the procedures followed — such as not doing a traceback on the control group — means the source is unlikely to be found.

  4. On a public-health basis, it is wrong because there has never been a finding that banning any particular item leads consumers to eat diets that are more likely to be healthy.

  5. On a resource-allocation basis, it is wrong because it expends enormous resources on very small problems. Lost in the smoke surrounding this crisis is this startling figure: CDC estimates that there are 1,412,498 cases of Salmonella in the US every year. One strongly suspects that if one’s goal is to improve public health, all the money spent on this effort could be reallocated more productively.

  6. On a food-safety basis, it is wrong because it undermines the whole preventative approach that we now know to be the only option when looking at increasing food safety. Treating both “gold standard” and “disinterested” farms equally requires buyers to use non-vetted sources and discourages future food safety investment.

  7. On a moral basis, it is wrong because in America we don’t use people as merely a means to an end. We do not follow some kind of utilitarian morality where it is OK to harm one person (or company) if it benefits two people. Individuals have to be individually punished for their individual transgressions in accordance with due process of law.

All these points indicate a massive need for reform of the essentially lawless discretion that FDA exercises.

If we are to have credibility as a player in this reformation of the government, we have to stand up for the individual farmer as much as for the whole tomato industry.

We’ve run a number of pieces on the situation faced by Agropecuaria Montelibano down in Honduras. Here we have an individual farm on which the FDA imposed an “Import Alert,” de facto banning their product from the United States.

Despite an extensive site visit and countless samples, FDA has never been able to definitively link this grower to Salmonella.

In fact, in what is just lawless behavior, the FDA and CDC went down to the farm, found nothing, then made a bunch of demands that are not made of other farmers — remove the telephone wire over a portion of the property, use only well water, not river water. As best we can tell, the FDA made these demands because it thinks it needs to demand changes. The river has tested negative, for example, and FDA has not urged a change to good agricultural practices to have farms avoid river water or telephone lines.

Yet even after the farm acquiesced, did everything asked, the FDA still will not lift the “Import Alert.” So, in effect, the FDA is asking a farmer to gamble millions of dollars and plant for next season with the hope — on a wing and a prayer — that the FDA won’t be too busy or won’t think up some new problem to be solved and will allow the product into the US.

Agrolibano is a gold-standard farm. Its product is accepted in the UK by companies such as Tesco, and the company has loads of third-party and customer audits.

The industry should not sit by and allow the FDA to crush an individual company for no reason.

Surely anyone watching the CDC and FDA through this Salmonella Saintpaul episode realizes that there is no place to hide… any company or industry could be next.

We shouldn’t make this company fight alone. The FDA should not have the discretionary power to destroy industries or companies.

We need to insist on justice for all — even a cantaloupe grower down in Honduras. Maybe had we fought harder, as an industry, against the arbitrary exercise of power there, the FDA would have been more hesitant to decimate the tomato industry now.

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