The FDA and CDC have held a series of conference calls and press conferences during the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak and most are rather predictable.
Yet listening to FDA’s Dr. David Acheson, M.D., Associate Commissioner for Foods, speak on a recent call was rather shocking.
In response to a question, he pointed out that FDA had requested “preventative authority for high risk foods.” Since Salmonella is a serious illness and tomatoes are considered high risk, such authority would allow the FDA to mandate preventative measures.
As it happens, both United and then PMA have endorsed mandatory, federal regulation.
In a bid to raise regulatory confidence, we had endorsed mandatory regulation as well, but confess we have become less certain as we see the caprice with which FDA exercises its powers.
Yet what strikes us is that this is a bureaucracy hiding behind the skirt of a power claim with no merit.
Just look at this outbreak: A mere “recommendation” from the FDA and we know of not one chain in America, restaurant or retail, that is selling anything the FDA has recommended against.
This tells us that if the FDA had the foggiest notion of how to end all outbreaks, it doesn’t need “preventative authority” to make that happen. A simple FDA “recommendation” that retailers and foodservice operators not sell tomatoes that were not certified to a particular standard would surely do the trick.
Dr. Acheson was called on this and asked what “preventative measures” the FDA might like to impose. He hemmed and hawed and said that this would depend on the specific legislation and authority granted, etc., etc., etc.
We, however, would encourage Dr. Acheson to think expansively… and answer the question. Since, at this point, this would simply be a recommendation, this requires no legislative authority. The question thus becomes: What is FDA’s “dream plan” of “preventative action” for tomatoes — and all fresh produce items?
What plan would FDA impose if it could impose any plan it desired?
You won’t get an answer to this question, and it is important to understand why:
1) FDA is petrified to take a stand for which it could later be found at fault. If it actually lays out a plan of preventative measures and there should still be another outbreak, then Dr. Acheson will be called up before a Senate Committee and crucified.
This is why any FDA standard is always going to be very vague. They may say land should be fenced, but they will never define adequate fencing — how high, how deep, made of what? If a pig gets under the fence, FDA wants to blame the farmer and use the breakthrough as proof the farmer violated the standards by fencing inadequately.
2) Despite the size of this outbreak, tomatoes still are so safe that it will be very difficult to ascertain any improvement in food safety no matter what is done. We know of 48 people hospitalized during this outbreak. With 305 million Americans, this means that the odds of any American having gotten sick enough to require hospitalization as a result of this outbreak are 48 divided by 305,000,000 or .00000015737%
Because of this fact, FDA will be hard pressed to recommend changes that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars with virtually no improvement in safety. There can’t be much improvement because the tomatoes are so safe to begin with.
Dr. Acheson actually has some nerve demanding mandatory authority as if the industry has refused to implement some FDA recommendation.
If Dr. Acheson really wants the tomato industry to do something — instead of grandstanding about mandatory preventive control, loudly proclaiming “we need them, we’ve asked for them and we don’t yet have them” — he should just speak up and tell us what he actually wants tomato farmers to do.
He doesn’t do so because A) He doesn’t want the responsibility, and B) He hasn’t a clue what tomato farmers should do to make crops safer.