Effect Measure

The FDA and CDC still don’t know the origin of the massive Salmonella outbreak, now extending to 40 states. They have lots of reasons, and under current conditions it’s not an easy problem since the production channels for things like tomatoes are labyrinthine. There’s lots of mixing, matching, diverting, and who knows what else going on as a tomato goes from a farm or hothouse to your table or local salad bar. We know this because FDA and CDC have been telling us so as explanation for why they still don’t know where a single clone of Salmnella saintpaul has managed to infect almost 1000 people so far with no end in sight. You’d think that FDA and CDC would be anxious to make that job easier. Of course you’d be wrong:

Fruit and vegetable producers should be required to use technology allowing U.S. regulators to trace origins of contaminated produce such as tomatoes, considered the probable cause of a current outbreak, consumer groups said.

Failure to identify the source of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 922 Americans since mid-April shows why “emergency regulations” are needed to put in place new food- safety rules, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Consumer Federation of America said today in a letter to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach.

[snip]

Growers should be required to mark fruits and vegetables with bar codes on stickers so they can be traced back to the farm of origin, the consumer groups said. Similar programs are now used voluntarily by some restaurants and retailers, and a standard code on all FDA-regulated items would improve record- keeping and speed investigations, they said.

[snip]

Producers, packers, and processors should also be required to identify in writing gaps where contamination may occur in their operations and how to prevent it, the groups urged.

Kimberly Rawlings, a spokeswoman for the FDA, said she couldn’t immediately comment on the groups’ proposal.

The agency has favored voluntary guidelines over mandatory rules for food producers, even though certain producer organizations have backed tougher standards to improve consumer confidence in food products. (Catherine Larkin, Bloomberg)

This failure has cost producers dearly, not to mention those sickened by Salmonella. Many retailers and wholesalers already require this, among them Costco, McDonald’s and Jack-in-the-Box. Two Democrats, Bart Stupak and John Dingell of Michigan, are trying to get improved food safety regulations but when agencies like FDA drag their feet it is slow going. It’s hard not to conclude the reason is purely ideological: the Bush administration is “just saying no” to regulations, even when it’s good for business. It’s the principle of the thing, apparently. It’s OK to track and wiretap citizens, but they draw the line at tomatoes.

A broken agency in a broken system.

Comments

  1. #1 tony
    July 8, 2008

    There is resistance to mandatory requirements across the spectrum of the farming sector from larger scale producers who will have to invest millions in additional capital improvements and management to small producers who can’t afford even small additional costs.

    There is something which may not be apparent in discussions of farming and food safety. Many requirements are out of place in a bucolic farm setting. Barn cats keeping mice away are banned. Birds can’t nest in barn rafters where produce is stored. Dirt driveways near produce warehouses, packing sheds or barns must be paved. Barn floors must be paved. Bandaids in packing shed lockers must be accounted for daily. Daily paperwork tracking harvests by field must be kept, bar coding boxes to keep an audit trail mandatory. If you’re packing a washed greens mix, you must construct a HAACP certified clean room. Farming is taking on the requirements and costs associated with canned goods manufacturing. It is a cost of business which they can not readily pass on. But it’s not all gloom and doom for farmers. Some requirements are welcomed, such as keeping fields clear of all manner of animals.

    Having said this, everyone sees the writing on the wall. In the end, some large scale producers will call it quits (a combination of added costs, high fuel prices and INS labor harassment), more will buck up. Small producers will have to get over the “I didn’t cause this why should I pay for it” attitude and perhaps find some government assistance to help defray the bill.

  2. #2 bigdudeisme
    July 8, 2008

    I know the source of the contamination, but I can’t prove it. Nobody can ever prove it. It happened in Mexico. The growers in a certain area of Mexico knew it happened there and as soon as they knew they had a problem they stopped shipping the offending tomatoes into the United States and shipped them down to Mexico City. Now the tomato season is over for the year and they are not shipping them to the United States and we are left with residual cross contamination.

    Regardless, marking every piece of fruit or every vegtable is ridiculous and not cost effective. You can bar code the boxes they are shipped in with the producer/farmer and track them that way.

    Regulations have to be well thought out. The farming industry does not want to lose any more money. This situation has cost a lot of people dearly as did the
    E-coli scare. The above described steps taken in farming operations that the last commenter mentioned are all true. There are many more steps taken in the processing of tomatoes and vegtables in the field to the packing of boxes that the consumer doesn’t see. Those tomatoes are sent to a washing shed where they are washed and handled by people wearing gloves and then packed into boxes, which are generally supplied by a certain buyer who wants their name on the tomatoes. The packers have to use company supplied restrooms and must wash thier hands before coming back into the packing/washing shed. They take their lunch break in an area that is isolated away from the packing/washing shed and mush again wash thier hands before they return. This requirement is also followed by Mexican growers in Mexico, (but to what degree, it is not clear). Other vegtables are packed and washed in very similar circumstances already for food safety. This is why your lettuce is not full of dirt at the gocery store. Someone removed a few lettuce leaves to make it look better and washed it off, then bagged it and boxed it for you.

    So the industry already does some self regulating and the FDA (although somewhat inept) has done some regulating already to improve food safety, but could do more.

    Having stated all of this, will we eliminate salomonella and E-coli from the food we buy? NO, we will not. The bacteria are so common and prevelant that there are thousands of people that get sick every year and the FDA never does pinpoint where the contamination comes from. This case is not much different, except there were a lot of people that got ill and it lost a lot of money for a lot of people. There are cases like this every year however, where the FDA does not know where the contamination came from.

    I think the growers/producers have done a lot to reduce risk and have identified areas of risk already. Transporters need to decontaminate their trucks, which would be a big help. A little bleach goes a long way.

    As far as requiring growers/producers to have technology that allows the government to track who the offender is, please show me that technology. All you can do is use bar codes and transponders on shipments.

  3. #3 Chris
    July 8, 2008

    Since Salmonella existed prior to the Bush administration, and no prior administration has required the kind of bar codes you advocate, we can equally conclude that the Carter and Clinton administrations protected the Constitutional rights – of tomatoes.

  4. #4 Terre
    July 8, 2008

    You would be correct Chris. You fail to mention, however, that Carter and Clinton protected the Constitutional rights – of citizens. Bush has not, and isn’t that the point?

  5. #5 Carl
    July 8, 2008

    You would be correct Chris. You also fail to mention, that under Clinton and Carter, Americans weren’t getting salmonella from freaking VEGETABLES.

    When your country’s food-safety standards have literally fallen to third world levels, then there is a serious deficiency in your food-safety regulatory regime. NB: This deficiency did not exist until the Bush Administration took control of said food-safety regulatory regime.

    Third World Status: Your Tax Cuts at Work.

  6. #6 shirt
    July 8, 2008

    So crashing the mid-size farms is cost effective? For agri-biz, probably.

    My sister was amazed to discover a bar code stamp on a fresh egg in the Netherlands. Wasn’t this overkill she asked the grocer. No he said. THat egg can be traced to the very chicken that laid it.

    Expensive my *ss. Profits, you mean. Less of them if you do it right.

  7. #7 Cathie
    July 8, 2008

    The FDA has much more important work to do than chase down some lowly strain of salmonella. Do the numbers. Maybe a thousand cases? There is much bigger game to be had.

    E.g., a recent FDA high priority was to decide if high-fructase corn syrup is a natural product. And the answer is?????? Yes! It is a natural product just like honey!!
    http://www.bakingbusiness.com/news/daily_enews.asp?ArticleID=94851

  8. #8 Narssonne
    July 8, 2008

    Another item where Republicans have proven they can’t run government. Putting people who say government does work in charge of the government turned out to be a bad idea. Luckily most will be swept out of office in November.

  9. #9 Chris
    July 8, 2008

    Carl, I believe it was during Clinton’s administration that 4 people died from E. coli in hamburger. I’m sure a little research would show incidents of food poisoning in every administration. Terre is more on point suggesting Bush has not done much to respect Constitutional rights of people – I am as disgusted with that as anyone. But that is hardly the reason to jump into some kind of all inclusive food tracking system to help diagnose the occasional outbreak. How would it prevent any? Where’s the cost/benefit analysis to show its benefits outweigh the costs? What potential for abuse? Has the European system mentioned by shirt ever been shown to do any good? Or does it just keep the peasants in line?

  10. #10 revere
    July 8, 2008

    Chris: I don’t think you appreciate how the food distribution system has changed and how ramified it is. This means that relatively small problems will cascade throughout the system. This kind of tracking is standard in other countries in Europe and it is necessary now that the distribution system has morphed into the form it is now. Yes, there is paperwork. Doctors fill out a lot of paper, much of it to safeguard patients (which I support) and much to much to safeguard insurance companies. The kind of thing we are talking about here is to safeguard the public.

  11. #11 pft
    July 9, 2008

    The U.S. “Track and Trace” law of 2002 “requires most every business in the U.S. food supply chain to keep detailed records on receipt and shipment of goods—where they come from, who they’ve been sent to, the lot numbers, and more—and to be able to supply that information four to eight hours after it’s requested. Other rules require companies to register food facilities and provide advanced notice of food shipments coming from abroad”

    http://www.informationweek.com/news/management/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=163106029&pgno=1

  12. #12 caia
    July 9, 2008

    I can see this being a good idea for big operations and long distribution chains, but would there be any exceptions for small growers who sell locally?

    I’m just boggling at the idea of a bar code on local produce. The lettuce I buy at the store or farmers’ market usually doesn’t even come in a bag. When cherries are in season, they sell them in pints, but pour them into a bag for you when you buy them. And in the fall, much as it’d be nice to have labels on the apples to keep the varieties straight, (“I like this… was it an Empire or McCoun?”), the immense improvement of local and fresh over shipped and stored is more than worth any confusion.

    I’m not saying foodborne illnesses can’t come from local food. I do think large outbreaks are less likely, but that isn’t even the point. In the case of the farmer’s market, I know who I’m buying from. In the case of the local stuff at the store, the store should be able to tell me, or at least narrow it down to a couple of farms.

    I know there are probably already plenty of regulations on these small producers. But the fact is, tracking systems are being proposed to substitute for human connections and short supply chains. When there are already connections and short chains, inserting such technology would be intrusive and undermining.

  13. #13 tony
    July 9, 2008

    caia- Farmers who only market directly to consumers will have to make a case for exemption and may win in the end on some issues. For instance, bar codes would be useless if farmers are reusing plastic lugs to transport produce to market over the season. It will be more important to keep the lugs clean. Organic farmers already have to have an audit trail so it isn’t as though smaller growers aren’t used to this type of field management. In the end, farmers are better off complying with the spirit, if not the letter of regs. If larger producers have to do it, they will press for all to do it. It is a crime to have to treat produce as a potential hazard, but that’s where we’re at.
    I keep reminding myself of the cider situation in the northeast. Farmers used dropped apples for cider forever. The most that was ever done to the apples prior to pressing was a hose wash to get dirt and grass off. That deer would urinate and defecate in the orchard never mattered until they became a host for ecoli O157:H. After the cider related ecoli outbreaks in the 90′s the industry underwent a major transformation, with every cider producer installing pasteurization equipment. Luckily, a good tech fix (ultraviolet pasteurization) was available, resulting in a good tasting product. Yes farmers had to buck up $20 to $40 thousand for the pasteurizer, but it was the price of staying in business.

  14. #14 g336
    July 9, 2008

    This is all about the insertion of middlemen and the administrative class into every nook and cranny of every single industry. For example, all that paperwork that doctors have to fill out? That’s an artifact of our present cartelized insurance system and would valish overnight in a universal single-payer health care system. Insurance doesn’t make people well, medical care does, and the cost of all the middlemen is about 30% of the cost of delivered care. Get rid of the middlemen and we would have the resources to cover all of the uninsured.

    I’ve got a better idea for tomatoes and all the rest of it. Do away with the long supply chains and ramified systems, and do away with all the !@#$# paperwork.

    As a practical matter; how’bout no paperwork for farm products shipped at most one county away from their point of origin, though at most two middlemen (e.g. a wholesaler and a retail grocer or restaurant). That means the county the farm is in and each of the counties that borders it.

    Between peak oil and the climate crisis, food production is going to have to be relocalized. Creating economic advantages for doing this now is a smart idea, and will also help bring agriculture into areas that are near more populous areas but presently uneconomical to farm.

    Signs of the times: Gasoline in California at $4.79 / gallon, vast suburbs full of foreclosures, increased demand for homes in cities (I refuse to use the word “housing” in this context, which is to “homes” as “fodder” is to “food”). So. Bulldoze the friggin’ commuter suburbs, push the losses back to the idiot developers who created them and the fraudulent lenders who fertilized them, and reclaim all that land for what was in many cases its original use: growing food near the point of consumption.

  15. #15 caia
    July 9, 2008

    tony –

    I didn’t know that about the cider, but it makes sense. I’m trying to remember if I’ve seen unpasteurized cider in the last few years, and I can’t remember. But in a way, they started pasteurizing because it made consumers feel more secure. I’m not sure how putting a barcode on my lettuce makes it safer if I already know where the lettuce came from. It doesn’t make it any cleaner, for example.

    I know organic farmers already have a lot of regs on them, but at least with organic certification, you can choose to do it or not. A lot of the farmers at my farmer’s market aren’t certified organic, but have signs (or will tell you) that they don’t use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides on their crops. (Some are working towards organic certification, and some are not.) Yes, one has to trust they’re telling the truth; but when the farm is a small acreage 20 miles from the market, they also know it would be very easy for someone to bust them if they were lying.

    Also, to me, there’s a difference between mandatory regulations for cleanliness, and a barcode or other tracking system. Not to go all foodie sentimental, but inserting tracking systems into a human-scale transaction… that people like partly because it is a human-scale transaction… seems almost… sacrilegious. In a way that requiring inspections, or pasteurization, or using a bleach solution on plastic crates, does not. Those things serve a safety purpose. Mandatory tracking where it’s unnecessary would serve no purpose but to promote the big food industry myth that, as Michael Pollan said, a carrot is a carrot is a carrot.

  16. #16 MoM
    July 10, 2008

    If barcoding is such an impossibility, how come every loose piece of fruit and most vegetables I buy at Wal mart or my other grocery store have a little numeric sticker on them that I can punch into the self-checkout to get the price? I can tell the difference between an Empire and a McCoun. All I have to do is look at the sticker that’s already on there now. (I’m a Pacific Rose guy myself…)

  17. #17 tony
    July 10, 2008

    MoM- You’re right, product coding was mandated by the retail sector back in the nineties to make checkout easier in supermarkets. (The mandate was easy to enforce- you couldn’t sell your product without product coding.) So in theory, the distributor or retailer would have to add the code supplied by the farmer to keep the audit trail intact. Many items aren’t amenable to coding. Jalapenos are a challenge, forget about habaneros!

  18. #18 bigdudeisme
    July 11, 2008

    I’ve got a reply for g366 and anyone else that thinks that we only get our produce locally or maybe from the next state and why we should track this stuff.

    Let’s not forget the fact that it is awfully hard to grow tomatoes in this country in the middle of January and that goes for most of the produce you get that time of year at the store. I very much doubt in the Northern part of the country that the Farmer’s Market is open in the town plaza. It is the middle of winter and it is friggin cold and things don’t grow well at 12 degrees fahrenheit.

    So where does our produce come from in the middle of the winter and why do we want to have a supply chain tracking system for this produce? Well, the produce is coming from Mexico, Chile, Brazil, the Caribbean nations, Central America, and even from Asia. This is a long supply chain and it becomes important to keep track of where all of this is coming from and who the growers/producers are. Most of the winter tomatoes are coming from Mexico and they are highly regulated by the FDA already. They must meet the same growing, harvesting, cleaning, and packing standards as any U.S. grower/producer. The FDA can do surprise inspections on their operations to verify compliance. The same holds true for any foreign supplier of fruits or vegtables imported into the United States. The requirements are very rigid to meet U.S. food safety standards.

    As far as did the U.S. have Salmonella and E.Coli outbreaks un the Carter and Clinton administations? Why, yes they did. They just did not get the plublicity that the media gives the outbreaks these days. The E.Coli outbreak in beef and the major beef recall under Clinton was a real tradgedy and I was unlucky enough to get ill from that one. E. Coli is no fun, but I hear salmonella is worse.

    There will always be outbreaks from these two bacteria as they occur naturally in the environment. It does not matter what the FDA does. There will always be some contamination somewhere and it will get into the food supply again. It is very important to wash your vegtables and fruit when you get them home. Wash your chicken and cutting board and take other precautions. Those eggs you bring home in the carton, wash those off and don’t put them back in that dirty carton, put them in a clean bowl.

    There are many things you can do to protect yourself and your family. Keeping things clean in your kitchen is very important. Liberal use of a good cleaner that kills germs will do the job best.

    Happy times to you all

  19. #19 Daniel Kim
    July 14, 2008

    re: caia’s comment that barcoding doesn’t make the produce cleaner:

    Well, actually it might. With a solid trail of accountability, a producer and the middlemen would be in the line of fire for liability in the event of outbreak, creating an incentive to keep their facilities clean, records up to date and workers trained. This is, of course, expensive.

    I remember when I was living in Portland, OR, that restaurants had health inspection placards on their front windows. Unlike some communities, Oregon’s health department had a graded system of reporting. A restaurant could be marked as “Excellent”, “Good”, “Pass” and “Fail”. In this way, a diner would know where a particular restaurant stood in their inspection, and a restaurant would be encouraged to make an extra effort to rise above “Pass”. A simple Pass/Fail, as I find in many other places, encourages the minimal level of compliance. Similarly, a solid chain of accountability can lead to higher levels of effort.

    As for the expense and practicality of individually marking produce? I know an onion grower in New Mexico (Carzalia Onions) because of work I have done. His operation is a family farm, and he grows chiles, onions, and other produce. He is very technically savvy, and invested in an onion sorting machine. This machine literally scans the profile of each individual onion, calculates density, regularity of shape, roundness, etc., and then directs it to be bagged for sale to one of several different contracts. Onions for fresh retail sale are put in net bags with PLU stickers. Onions for canning and processing are packed differently, according to the contractor’s specifications. Since each item is already individually handled and labeled, a barcode would not be an insurmountable problem.

    Even a “family” farm is way beyond Ma and Pa in overalls, although they do still wear overalls. The farmers I have met may have ag economics, agronomy or ag engineering degrees, and use GIS/Precision Agriculture systems to monitor productivity, water use, waste streams and pest management. Not rocket science, but definitely 21st century.