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Pundit’s Mailbag — FDA
Needs To Use Modern Tools

In the context of our exhaustive coverage of an issue such the Salmonella Saintpaul/tomato outbreak, sometimes a single paragraph of a single story can cry out to a reader and crystallize an important issue. If we are fortunate than our reader will decide to share that insight with the entire industry, and indeed, we are all lucky today:

Your article, Andrew & Williamson Hit Hard By FDA’s Mexican Tomato Ban, part of your SPECIAL REPORT III: Tomato/Salmonella Source List Narrows But Some Regions Ruined, included this paragraph:

“That means FDA calling up USDA, calling up the produce trade groups and asking this question: “What are the growing areas that could or could not be implicated in this outbreak?” FDA quickly develops one list and publishes it. If implicated areas are cleared, they get removed, but FDA shouldn’t wait for a senator from Florida to call before it correctly characterizes a region in Florida.”

I wholeheartedly agree. The spinach industry could have been saved a lot of grief if FDA had used some of the modern tools available. Attached here is a report I pulled from the ACN ScanTrack data we purchase. This report was pulled right after the ban on all spinach consumption was announced in September 2006. I originally ran the report to check if our brand, Popeye, could be the source of the contaminated spinach. I was able to confirm that it looked like “no”.

The report is a list of all packaged spinach items. Across the top are the ACN markets in the states that FDA initially identified as having illnesses. There was only one item that sold in all 20 of those markets: Earthbound Farms Baby Spinach. Dole and Fresh Express were in most of the markets due to their wide distribution but they were not in all of the markets.

The FDA’s recall list certainly could have been swiftly narrowed to Natural Selection Foods and the brands they packed (which included Dole at the time) if the FDA used some modern research techniques. A quick look at NSF’s inbound supply records would have also told them that the infected area was limited to San Benito County and had nothing to do with Salinas Valley or the rest of the country. But here we go again…

— Leslie Tripp
Director of Marketing
River Ranch Fresh Foods, LLC
Salinas, California

We thank Leslie very much for this letter as we think it hits a key problem — an FDA somewhat trapped in the past. One wonders how many people at FDA bothered to pull the same data that Leslie did. Our guess, none. In fact they probably don’t pay for the data, so they don’t have access to it and probably don’t have anyone who knows how to read the reports anyway.

This is where all the proposals to increase FDA funding miss the mark; just pouring more money into an antiquated system doesn’t make it modern. You need a commitment from the top to truly modernize and an understanding of what a paradigm-changing system can actually look like.

There is something else. It is easy to think that the problem at FDA is ignorance. All of us in the industry have been staring at the CDC map of where people have gotten ill and scratching our heads at how FDA can continue to suspect Florida. It makes everyone think we need to go educate the FDA about produce product flows.

The truth, though, is that the FDA does not really make judgments. It does not take calculated risks, and it has an absolutist attitude and demands an unreasonable standard of proof before ruling something out even as a kind of working hypothesis.

So, no distribution of product will ever make an FDA that thinks like this one move ahead on the assumption that the tomatoes implicated are from Mexico.

Equally, had we flown Leslie Tripp and the CEO of AC Nielsen to Washington, DC, to give a presentation to FDA about this product flow, although we think it should have, we don’t think it would have changed FDA’s actions in the spinach crisis.

Most of us, most of the time, have to make decisions in the context of weighing pros and cons. So, for most of us the decision to impose a defacto ban on spinach or tomatoes or one firm’s cantaloupes would involve weighing the benefits in terms of food safety against the costs, in terms of food destroyed, jobs destroyed, etc.

Once it is identified that there is a pathogen that has caused an illness, there is no longer any counterweight. So if thousands of people in Mexico are thrown into poverty as a result of a ban on Mexican tomatoes — that is just not part of the mission of FDA.

If spinach farmers in New Jersey went broke — it just wasn’t FDA’s problem.

If thousands of people lose their jobs picking Honduran melons, that is just not something to be considered.

If you look at the list of sources “not implicated” in the current outbreak, it has nothing to do with FDA looking at food safety programs, product flows or, in fact, making any judgment at all. It is a list of places that could not be a part of the outbreak because they either were not shipping at all or were not shipping to the US at the time in question. No judgment, no interpretation required.

Leslie is suggesting the FDA needs to step up to the plate and make the best decisions possible based on rational probabilities, not abstract possibilities. Remember Leslie’s point in reading the data was not that it was impossible to see a way for it to be River Ranch — there could be tourists, etc. — the point is that it “looked like” a no-brainer and that acting on that basis would be reasonable. This is a good point, but we are quite far from there in terms of the FDA adopting this ethos.

Many thanks to Leslie and to River Ranch for sharing this important data and thought-process with the industry.

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