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PMA’s Town Hall Meeting
On Salmonella Saintpaul
Raised More Questions Than Answers

At its annual Foodservice Conference, PMA conducted a “town hall meeting” on the Salmonella Saintpaul crisis. Facilitated by Bryan Silbermann, President of PMA, on the stage was a large panel made up of a PMA executive, an FDA official, one domestic tomato grower, a Mexican tomato grower, two regional tomato associations, an executive from the California Leafy Greens Board and Sam Farr, the Congressman from Monterey County.

One always learns something from events such as this, but, fundamentally, these large panels are simply not the way to extract much in the way of information. Years of interviewing have taught us that only the ability to ask pointed follow-up questions enables one to get people to speak on subjects they are hesitant to speak about.

Each person is too involved, has too many reasons to be quiet and because there are so many panelists and everyone has to get a chance to speak, it is too easy for a panelist to dodge a question.

Something more along the lines of “Meet The Press,” where one person is interviewed for an hour by someone knowledgeable enough to not let them get off with platitudes would generate more valuable information for the industry.

As it was, the presentation raised many interesting points, but left most of them dangling because nobody was there to ask pointed questions.

Bryan Silbermann started the session off by pointing out that it was easier to attack and criticize than to productively identify solutions — a claim that is undoubtedly true. Yet, if the critique of FDA and CDC is thoughtful, such analysis is truly valuable. In fact, it is a prerequisite to finding solutions. After all, if we can’t identify what went wrong in the conduct of this outbreak investigation, how will we possibly know what we want to do differently in the future?

The truth is that it would be extremely helpful to have PMA’s critique of CDC, FDA, the State Health departments, etc.

Kathy Means, PMA’s Vice President of Government Relations, kept emphasizing the point that although the tomato farmers on the stage had been able to conduct quick tracebacks, this didn’t mean everyone could do so. Undeniably true. Yet Kathy did not say that, in fact, this particular outbreak investigation had been slowed down by tomato shippers who couldn’t track back quickly, leaving us to see this as a purely theoretical concern.

Scott Horsfall pointed out that the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which was the industry’s primary response to the spinach crisis, was up and operating and being duplicated in other states. So far so good in terms of no major outbreaks, but he didn’t address the major questions surrounding the Marketing Agreement: What would happen if a major player pulled out? With the growth in local processing, are standards being duplicated everywhere? Even in California, the Marketing Agreement doesn’t have 100% membership — what would happen to the industry if a non-member had a food safety problem? What is private testing telling us about the prevalence of E. coli 0157:H7, Salmonella and other pathogens on leafy greens? Do regulators respect the program, and would they react differently to an outbreak today because of the program?

Scott Horsfall, Parker Booth, Reggie Brown, Ed Beckman,
Martín Ley, Sam Farr and Sherri McGarry

Parker Booth, President of Ace Tomato and Delta repack Company, reported that in a recent test with Congressional investigators, his traceback systems worked very well and he echoed a Pundit beef that by treating all suppliers alike — whether they had invested heavily in food safety or not — FDA depreciates the value of investing in food safety.

He also pointed out, as we have emphasized many times, that by disrupting the aligned supply chains of food safety-conscious buyers, the FDA was forcing these buyers to turn to unvetted sources and thus increasing food safety risks rather than reducing them.

Both Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee and Executive Vice President of the Florida Tomato Exchange, and Ed Beckman, President or the California Tomato Farmers, complained about the consumer media coverage.

They were too polite to point out that for the most part the media coverage is an echo chamber of the official government pronouncements. So if Dr. Acheson goes before the national media and says the problem is that the tomato farmers keep all their records with pencil and paper, then the consumer media will report about a very unsophisticated industry with poor traceback. The root cause of the problem, though, is not the reporters but what the FDA is saying.

Ed Beckman, Martín Ley, Sam Farr, Sherri McGarry

Martín Ley, Vice President of Del Campo Supreme, pointed to the overly broad nature of the FDA’s restrictions, comparing it to FDA recommending against drinking water because one bottled water manufacturer had a faulty product.

Congressman Sam Farr (D–Carmel) pointed to the predisposition of public health authorities to err on the side of caution. But in response to a question, he did acknowledge that society had come to accept, in the case of automobile accidents, that safety was just one of many values. He clearly was looking for ways in which Congress could be helpful but didn’t proclaim any particular legislative initiatives.

Sherri McGarry, Emergency Coordinator for FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, was clearly the most underutilized member of the panel. She made a vague statement that the FDA’s definition of traceback differs from what the industry defines as traceback, but she didn’t explain what the FDA wanted to see.

She wasn’t prompted to explain any of the FDA’s or CDC’s actions and her statements that echoed FDA policy were not critiqued. In other words, there was no mechanism on the panel to question… nobody to say or point out the critique that Dr. Michael T. Osterholm made of the initial epidemiological effort here… and ask FDA to respond to that critique.

One thing that did come out of the session was that FDA is making greater efforts to engage with the industry. Unfortunately some of this engagement sounded like ex parte communication with selected industry groups.

To many industry leaders, this communication is highly questionable. After the session, we received several calls from importers and producers of tomatoes from Baja bitterly complaining about the communication the FDA had with the regional US tomato organizations — pointing out that these regional organizations were competitors and couldn’t be expected to protect the interests of Baja or other producing areas.

Several saw in those communications a process that led to Baja being thrown under the bus in the early days of the outbreak, while both California and northern Florida had an exemption.

We think these suppliers have a strong point. It is one thing to turn to industry on a broad, national basis and get together a group of experts not involved in the controversy to give advice and lend expertise. It is quite another thing entirely to go to individual organizations that have a specific dog in the fight and let them influence policy.

Many thanks to PMA for sponsoring and facilitating the session.

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