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The Glorification Of Traceback

If you listen to the pronouncements of the FDA, you see them as heroes searching with great difficulty to trace back the Salmonella outbreak on tomatoes to its source.

And, indeed the job is a difficult one. Remember we only have 243 people who have been interviewed. Assuming half actually remember something useful, we are out searching for 122 servings of tomato — and remember some of the servings can just be a slice on a burger. The problem is, during the time CDC says this outbreak was active, Americans consumed over four billion servings of tomatoes.

So this is some job.

One wonders exactly how much it matters.

In a factory-sourced food or drug, the importance is obvious. A dripping pipe will continue to drip.

But it is not common for the FDA to trace back and discover some horrible permanent flaw such as drawing on sewage water for irrigation. Most of the time the traceback brings us to a field and we learn that, it seems, there was some salmonella on that field a few months ago.

In fact, the investigations are often ridiculous because in search of something wrong to correct, the FDA will create special rules for that one field. So they may find a telephone wire crosses the farm, then require the farm to move it because, after all, birds might sit on the telephone wire and do their business.

First these actions are taken without scientific support. Has the FDA passed a regulation against birds doing their business while flying or standing in the field? Where is the peer-reviewed study demonstrating that telephone wires increase the risk of salmonella contamination on a farm?

Second, FDA applies this requirement only to the particular farm under investigation. But they don’t issue a pronouncement that they have studied the matter and that telephone and electric wires must be removed from all farms or all tomato farms or produce farms. In fact, the farm next door to the one being investigated will not be required to move the wires.

Everyone would like to have FDA find the source, but mostly that is just so that everyone else can say they were not implicated.

We wish the FDA luck; we think traceback will be difficult but even more unlikely is actually learning anything useful if we ever do find the farm.

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