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Pundit’s Mailbag — Free Baja Take 2

When the focus of the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak was tomatoes, we ran two pieces related to Baja. The first was entitled, Free Baja, and urged the FDA to add Baja to the “safe list” since the same logic that applied to northern Florida applied to Baja.

The other piece was entitled, Andrew & Williamson Hit Hard By FDA’s Mexican Tomato Ban, and it included a profile of how these massive supply chain interruptions lead buyers to abandon well-vetted, quality suppliers and deal with source they are less secure about.

Now we hear from a jalapeno grower in Baja regarding how the FDA is repeating the same mistakes it made with Baja tomatoes:

My name is Doug Hermance, and I own a produce company, Pea King Produce, Inc., based out of Santa Maria, California.

I have a large chili pepper operation based out of Ensenada, Baja Mexico and have been reading all your articles related to the recent Salmonella outbreak and the possible implication of Jalapeno peppers as the source. I wish I could express in words the frustration and disgust I feel toward how the government agencies have conducted and reported their research without regard to those farmers whose livelihood depends upon these crops. I admire your work and respect your opinion, so I am contacting you in the hopes of at least having someone hear my story.

I currently have a Jalapeno & Serrano ranch located in Northern Baja Mexico, approximately 2 hours South of San Diego, CA, and we were harvesting nearly 10,000 40lb. cases per week, until July 21. I have always valued food safety and understand the importance of these programs to ensure the well being of the consumer. I have invested an immense amount of money and time to be proactive in the development and implementation of these programs.

My thinking was to be prepared for such an instance, thus separating my company and product from all those growers who do not have these programs in place. This would logically build the reputation of my company and eventually benefit all those who chose to do business directly with me.

I began the education process from the ground level, talking to the growers, field laborers, sorting crews; everyone involved in production; stressing the importance of being prepared for a crisis and having accountability for our product.

I contracted Primus Labs and conducted our audits, in which we scored very well; see links below. I then took the initiative to conduct periodic samples of our product to bolster consumer confidence and again, to be prepared if there was a security breach or contamination in our food supply chain. The FDA / CDC then issued a press release around July 2 citing Jalapeno as a possible source; and all future shipments would now be tested before allowing the product to go to market. We had approximately 10 samples tested by the government and we passed them all, we also continued to take our own samples and all have come back negative as well.

This was the EXACT instance I had been planning for. My company was prepared and I was proud to be able to show the records we had compiled before the possible link was established. Many of my competitors, including those in the United States, did NOT have their fields certified and did not have samples tested.

I was contacted by WGA, large produce companies and many growers, asking for my assistance in compiling information to present a valid argument to the government regarding the plausibility of a single Jalapeno as the magic link to the entire outbreak. The idea was to at least get clearance for growing areas and growers who had no possible link with the outbreak. I obliged and eagerly awaited the response, only to be appalled and dismayed at the most recent press release stating US Jalapeno were cleared but Mexico is now the likely source, and ALL Jalapeno from ALL parts of Mexico are now under intense investigation and should not be consumed.

The single Jalapeno was traced back to a ranch in Middle Mexico, and the actual scientific data and methods used in obtaining it are at the very least, questionable. My ranches are located 2 hours South of San Diego; so the comparison or blanket covering of an entire country is idiotic and simply not fair.

I am happy for the US growers, at least they will be able to resume harvesting, but accountability should be mandated for every grower in every region of production. What makes a ranch in Central California or Georgia any safer than my ranch in Northern Baja, especially when I can provide third-party documentation of clean and safe product during this entire process? The FDA / CDC has even supported my claim by testing my product as well; it is CLEAN & SAFE!

I now have to explain to my growers and the nearly 500 laborers that we cannot harvest the crops because the US Government has warned people about consuming Mexican grown Jalapeno and there is now no demand for our product. These people all have families and will now go through extreme hardships in their pursuit of finding another job, hopefully, before they go without food!

These people gave me their best effort to adhere to the food safety programs and did everything I asked of them. I am literally sick to my stomach as I think of the small children possibly going hungry and the lame excuse as to why their parents are not working.

I have demonstrated traceability and accountability of my work; is it within reason to ask the FDA / CDC do the same?

— Doug Hermance
Pea King Produce, Inc.
Santa Maria, CA

PS — The FDA / CDC are still saying don’t rule out tomatoes, are you serious?!

1. Corrective Actions Response

2. U.S. FDA — Notice of FDA Action 7/2/08

3. U.S. FDA — Notice of FDA Action 7/7/08

4. U.S. FDA — Notice of FDA Action 7/8/08

5. Mexican Lab Samples 7/14, 7/15, 7/18, 2008

6. Mexican Lab Samples #2 7/14, 7/15, 7/18, 2008

7. Primus Labs — Microbiological Results 7/15/08

Our heart goes out to Doug and to his workers. Just as we have always proclaimed, going back to the spinach crisis with pieces such as A Look At The Faces, that the victims of foodborne illness are real people and must never be forgotten, we think the victims of governmental action, such as the laborers on this farm, must also never be forgotten.

Yet our reasons for objecting to the continued restriction of Baja and many other parts of Mexico go beyond sadness at seeing innocent people and businesses crushed.

This sad treatment reaches to the essence of public health:

1. The politicization of public health.

Crucially, public confidence in the FDA depends on it being seen as even-handed and non-political. Every single thing it does must be seen as not influenced by politics but only driven by science and a concern for public health. Yet in this outbreak, this trust has been broken. The best explanation for why northern Florida tomatoes were exempted and Baja was not is simply that Florida has senators and congressmen and Baja does not.

The whole way the “not implicated” list was put together, where each political entity had to come and plead its case with the FDA, was inherently political and thus damaging to the FDA’s image. As Dr. Michael T. Osterholm pointed out in our interview with him, which you can read here, “… the formation of the FDA list is disingenuous. It was based on those that screamed the loudest, and from a public health standpoint, that’s not right.”

There is nothing in the science to implicate Baja any more than there is something in the science to implicate Georgia. The disparate treatment is a function of politics, not science and so is inherently damaging to the FDA and public health in general.

We need a strong and respected FDA, an FDA that consumers will listen to when it gives the all clear. But consumers are coming to see that this FDA is political and this politicization of the agency deprives the country of a valuable resource.

2. The inadvertent increase in risk by banning whole areas.

In banning whole geographic areas, the FDA focuses solely on the outbreak at hand. But this is inimical to the goal of enhancing public health. With Salmonella, for example, the CDC estimates that there are 1.4 million cases in the US each year and foodborne illness in total account for 76 million cases. So, when the FDA wants to consider a ban on a particular portion of the food supply, it is not enough to know if this action will reduce the likelihood of an individual falling victim to this particular outbreak.

Remember that 76 million foodborne illnesses a year translate into over 1.5 million per week! It is imperative to be certain that the action will not drive consumers to less safe product.

In dealing with produce, there is a significant reason to think that such broad bans do more harm than good — measured solely by the impact on public health. The high-volume chains that feed most Americans, companies such as McDonald’s and Costco, select suppliers carefully. They have much to lose from causing illness and so work diligently to vet the farms they work with and ensure they are utilizing the most advanced methods to enhance food safety.

When the FDA bans a whole geographic region, it compels these buyers to abandon their vetted farms and, instead, scramble to secure supplies from places they are unfamiliar with.

This means that the produce purchased is likely to be more risky, not less risky.

Clearly if FDA has information, it should share it but having done so there is simply no reason to usurp the judgment of McDonald’s, Costco and other buyers. If these buyers remain confident in their supply chain, the FDA has no reason to interfere.

Doug Hermance’s letter is poignant but at least he can write a letter. The consumer victims of FDA’s broad stroke actions are unheard from, but in forcing buyers to use unfamiliar sources, FDA has surely caused more foodborne illness than these broad bans prevent.

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