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In A Rush To Judgment, Taylor Farms Gets Connected To Cyclosporiasis Outbreak Without Sufficient Evidence

It is important that the industry be willing to discuss food safety issues and, certainly, here at the Pundit we have never been shy. From Botulism & Carrot Juice to Cantaloupe and Listeria to Buyer-Led Food Safety Initiatives, we have analyzed and assessed many of the issues.

When the FDA issued an import alert on Honduran cantaloupes, we were there, and when a grand Food Safety Leadership Council acted, we wrote about that as well. We focused on foodservice operators and their food safety efforts, and we looked at Irradiation as an approach to deal with food safety issues. When the National Restaurant Association asserted itself on food safety, we evaluated that effort.

We also looked closely at the Great Pistachio Recall. Of course, we intensively reviewed the Salmonella Saint Paul Outbreak, variously pined on tomatoes and jalapeños, and the Great Spinach Crisis of 2006. We have investigated food safety issues related to sprouts and, of course, looked at traceability and its impact on food safety.

One thing we haven’t done is write anything at all about Taylor Farms, Taylor Farms de Mexico and the cyclosporiasis outbreak. The reason we haven’t written about it is that there was this unseemly rush to announce things without satisfactory evidence or even a coherent theory.

The one thing we know about the situation is that the Center for Disease Control has found no evidence of the vast majority of cases having any connection to Taylor Farms de Mexico or to any other Taylor Farms operation. The Number One state having cyclosporiasis cases is Texas. It has almost half the known cases, yet to quote the CDC:

“The preliminary analysis of results from an investigation into a cluster of cases that ate at a Texas restaurant does not show a connection to Taylor Farms de Mexico. This investigation is ongoing.”

This is not a trivial matter, and it calls into question the findings of Iowa and Nebraska that claim they have identified a connection to Taylor Farms de Mexico going back through certain Darden restaurant chains. These states won’t make much information public, so it is hard to assess the accuracy of their claims, but Darden has stated it doesn’t use Taylor Farms lettuce mix in Texas.

It is possible that it is a problem related to a growing area and that Taylor, the largest of the players, was implicated because its large volumes led to an effective trackback but, in reality, everyone buying from that growing region was affected.

Yet we think this is unlikely because the outbreak is so long-lasting, with illness onsets spreading over two months, this doesn’t match likely growing and harvesting patterns.

We look at the geographic dispersion of the problem and its extended time frame, and we doubt that it is fresh produce and certainly not salad mix, at all. That somehow only the tiny percentage of this plant’s production that went to Iowa and Nebraska had this problem and all the rest did not seems odd, and since there is no indication the problem was widespread in Taylor’s production, we question the accuracy of the assessment in these two states.

Most likely, there is another ingredient, say something in salad dressing, that has been the source of the contamination.

We learned from the Salmonella Saint Paul outbreak the limits of questioning consumers. Consumer reports are often incomplete, especially on a long incubation period illness such as cyclosporiasis. So consumers may remember they ate tomatoes when they really ate salsa and a component of that salsa is jalapeño. We also learned the limits of the techniques we use to identify foodborne illnesses.

Investigation of food safety outbreaks are a low-tech affair. They give questionnaires to healthy people and to sick people and attempt to identify differences in eating patterns between the groups. So, if a disproportionate number of people say they ate at a particular restaurant or ate a particular food, that restaurant or that food becomes an object of suspicion.

This works well enough for obvious foods — a hamburger, spinach in a spinach salad — but it doesn’t work well at all for ingredients. Who knows what items are in the salad dressing they ate at a restaurant two weeks ago?

It doesn’t help that the media doesn’t generally understand the issues at stake at all. No less a newspaper than The New York Times ran a piece titled, Taylor Farms, Big Food Supplier, Grapples With Frequent Recalls. The piece, written by Stephanie Strom, was shocking because, well, to start with, the basic premises to such a story, that Taylor farms has “frequent recalls” and that such recalls have some connection to the safety of its food, are never established.

Why would this reporter believe this to be so? Well, here is the paragraph in its entirety:

Food safety experts said the number was somewhat higher than they would expect, even given Taylor’s size. “While produce companies have by far the most recalls among food companies in general, I’d say one every 12 to 18 months is more the standard,” said Gene Grabowski, a consultant who assists companies in dealing with the public and the media over food recalls.

Where does one begin? First of all, the article does not quote ANY food safety experts, not one. Mr. Grabowski, though a PR man of great talent is, most decidedly, not a “food safety expert.” He has a bachelor’s degree in writing and history, and he has experience as a communications consultant. Second, Grabowski’s ballpark assessment of how many recalls are “the standard” for companies is neither supported by data, nor, even if true, meaningful. Suppose we prove that “the standard” is for restaurant companies to have one violation every 12 months. If Joe’s single unit diner has two, it is way above the norm, but if McDonald’s, with over 32,000 outlets, has 200, it is exemplary.

Well Taylor Farms is the McDonald’s of the industry. It is simply non-sensical to discuss the number of recalls as some kind of independent variable. It is more a numerator, and if you don’t know the denominator — how many servings shipped — you really can’t say anything very useful.

Besides, all recalls are not created equal. Some are due to mistakes that introduced an allergen into a food or are done out of an abundance of caution. Just as you can’t judge two surgeons by what percentage of their patients die without knowing the standards by which those surgeons accept cases, so you can’t judge two companies without knowing the standards by which they do voluntary recalls. 

If one surgeon specializes in the most dangerous surgeries and another rejects any patients with known complications, the statistics could deceive. A death rate of 20% for the surgeon willing to try difficult things might mean he is a more talented surgeon than a 2% death rate by the surgeon who plays it safe.

So, a high voluntary recall number or percentage might just mean that a company is exemplary in its willingness to accept bad publicity in order to safeguard consumers.

The temptation to jump to conclusions, to pass aspersions, it seems too much for our society. We need someone to blame and fast.

But such knee-jerk reporting isn’t helpful; it closes off avenues of investigation that might actually lead to meaningful discovery. Not to mention that it leads to wasteful demands to close plants, to conduct testing at specific facilities, etc., when that is not really justified by the science.

There are lessons here. Our state-by-state process is not really conducive to studying national outbreaks, the focus on traceability is overstated as the slowdown is almost always epidemiology, not traceability, and it is a terrible mistake to leap to conclusions on what individual states happen to say to deduce the cause of national outbreaks.

And, a little skepticism about what one reads in the newspaper is justified as well.

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