Produce industry and Bush administration's short sighted and costly mistake

We've been saying this for a while. The produce industry has taken a big hit and their successful lobbying is one of the reasons. But it's not just their fault. It's also the fault of the Bush administration:

One of the worst outbreaks of foodborne illness in the U.S. is teaching the food industry the truth of the adage, "Be careful what you wish for because you might get it."

The industry pressured the Bush administration years ago to limit the paperwork companies would have to keep to help U.S. health investigators quickly trace produce that sickens consumers, according to interviews and government reports reviewed by The Associated Press.

The White House also killed a plan to require the industry to maintain electronic tracking records that could be reviewed easily during a crisis to search for an outbreak's source. Companies complained the proposals were too burdensome and costly, and warned they could disrupt the availability of consumers' favorite foods.

The apparent but unintended consequences of the lobbying success: a paper record-keeping system that has slowed investigators, with estimated business losses of $250 million. So far, nearly 1,300 people in 43 states, the District of Columbia and Canada have been sickened by salmonella since April. (AP)

The food industry knows it screwed up. The tomato/jalapeno/whatever Salmonella episode will cost it billions. It is now ready for some meaningful regulations to provide tracking. There's nothing surprising about a regulated industry not wanting more regulation, no matter how rational. Nobody likes to fill out paper or put barcodes on their products because the government says you have to. But Congress gave the FDA the authority to regulate the food industry under strong bioterrorism legislation. The Bush administration didn't follow the wishes of Congress because the industry didn't want strong regulations:

According to government records reviewed by the AP, business groups met at least 10 times with the White House between March 2003 and March 2004, as the FDA regulations were under debate. Food industry lobbyists successfully blunted proposals using arguments familiar in other regulatory debates: The government's plans would saddle business with unnecessary and costly regulations.


Participants in the meetings included companies and trade groups up and down the food chain, including Altria Group Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc., when Altria was Kraft's parent; The Kroger Co.; Safeway Inc.; ConAgra Foods Inc.; The Procter & Gamble Co.; the American Forest and Paper Association; the Polystyrene Packaging Council; the Glass Packaging Institute; the Cocoa Merchants' Association of America; the World Shipping Council; and the Food Marketing Institute.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association spent $2.6 million on lobbying in 2003 and 2004, the period when the FDA rules were under consideration, according to federal lobbying records. The Food Marketing Institute spent $1.7 million during the period. The figures were for all lobbying by the trade groups and on their behalf.

The industry objections are the familiar ones. Too expensive, too much paperwork, the FDA was overstepping its authority, etc., etc. But Congress gave FDA the authority and one proper function of government is to make things happen that should happen for the common good even if not everyone likes it. As we have come to expect, the Bush FDA caved under pressure from the White House:

The White House Office of Management and Budget defended its meetings with food industry groups in 2003 and 2004, saying it regularly meets with companies and individuals with a stake in proposed government rules.

"Our door is open for anyone -- from non-profits, industry representatives to individual citizens -- who request meetings on regulations," OMB spokeswoman Jane Lee said. "These are listening sessions in conjunction with personnel from the regulating agency."

If you believe the Bush administration Office of Management and Budget's doors are open to everyone to an equal extent, then I have a 1995 Volvo for you. Reasonably priced. Don't pay attention to the fact it looks like a shit box. If you think the Bush OMB listens to all points of view, you don't care how something looks, anyway.

178 days left.

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I've posted here frequently about the unintended consequences of good intentions on this issue so I won't belabor the point. What I'm curious about is how all this information would have helped if investigators were wrong in the first place? Certainly shortening the investigation time would been a great help but if it wasn't tomatoes to begin with it appears as though farmers would have still taken it on the chin. (As a side note, local farmers in the NE are having a banner year as a result of this scare, but are angry with the feds anyway. They know the bell could toll for them next time.)
In the past you've mentioned how public health agencies have been gutted. I would say that without reinvigorated regulatory entities all the barcoding and traceback in the world wouldn't mean much in a case like this.

Tony, how do you assume they would have still made the wrong choice to begin with if they had the extra paper work and electronic tracking? Also, if they did, they probably could have ruled tomotoes out much sooner and moved on to the real culprit. Or the effort savings could have allowed them to pursue multiple paths at the same time.

This is obviously a layman's opinion but it appears those in charge went back over the case histories and found another common denominator (jalapenos) only when they started exhausting tomato leads. That seems like a strapped agency's detective work. A more robust agency would have pursued other avenues simultaneously. As I wrote, having a traceback program would quicken the process and there is much to be said for that but it can't substitute for good leg work and analysis by epidemiologists who are properly funded.
As I've written previously, my biggest complaints revolved around the equivocal announcements, the state by state greenlighting of product, and the lack of a federal reimbursement program for affected growers and distributors. That last point would be a very helpful way to sell a mandatory barcoding and traceback program.

The investigators were trying to rule in tomatoes, instead of rule out various foods and food sources -- a very costly approach if you don't get a true hit on the first try. Revere explained the correct epi model when the unraveling of this investigation surfaced. (I don't know the date of the posting.)

The takehome lesson is that our ag industry sees barcoding as a risk, when -- if all were well -- barcodes would significantly reduce costs for packer inventory control, pick-for-shipping labor, routing, store inventory control, and accounting. It looks like more effort/money is being spent to prevent a multi-use field-to-foodie system than to develop it. When someone is more concerned with hiding potential evidence than achieving day-to-day efficiency, I get very worried.

By Cathie Currie (not verified) on 26 Jul 2008 #permalink

Oh boy, I thought. Here we go again. Revere's comment "one proper function of government is to make things happen that should happen for the common good even if not everyone likes it" made me think he had confused the US with the planet Vulcan; "the good of the many outweighs the good of the few," etc.

Then I thought on it some more, and realized he's right. People in the US have many rights they may assert against "the common good" but placing items into the stream of interstate commerce isn't one of them. Furthermore, personal rights include personal responsibilities so no person has the right to obscure the fact that they've placed tainted goods on the market. The public has the right to demand accountability.

That's not to say a particular plan to do so is a good one just because it's within the public's right. A proper evaluation should be made of costs and benefits of a particular set of rules to ensure the net result is a true benefit to the public. I do not know how the proposed rules would come out in such an analysis, but I concede they might have been a good approach.

Such accountability would also bolster personal rights - the persons harmed by tainted food should be able to use the data system to sue the person that caused it to be put in commerce. Also, should the data clearly support the non-culpability of the intervening parties (e.g., retailers and distributors, if the data shows the source was the farmer) the government should have the duty to provide such data to a court so the intervening parties may properly be dismissed. (That's not the way product liability works now - generally the whole distribution chain is sued and the defendants fight out responsibility among themselves.)

This concept that when a person acts, the public has a right to hold them accountable for their acts could go a long way in a data-enabled society. I could see the system applied to many acts in commerce - for example, records kept by the government of doctor's diagnoses, and if a pattern of bad ones develops, the doctor's license is pulled and the afflicted patients are supplied with the data so they might employ it in a malpractice suit. If bad food should be weeded out of the system (and it should) then bad medical advice should be too.

Of course, this should be applied to the government too. I assume that bar code on that steak will not only capture who handled it clear back to the cow and bull that gave rise to the steer, but the government inspector that graded it. Accountability for public acts should apply to government servants as well.

With all this heavy lobbying the real danger is that the regulations we end up with will be stacking the deck against local farmers and their markets. The widespread commodity chains and centralized packing a shipping engaged in by the big agro-food corporations is the problem. This system creates the food safety issues and the need to regulate them. The solution is to devolve to more locally supplied markets that support local and regional food economies. Such a system would actually be more efficient, generate far fewer food miles and would be easier to regulate. Too often, food safety laws are used by the big corporations to favor their own wasteful, large scale, global trade operations and disadvantage small,locally oriented growers. See the current issue of 'Seedling' ( for an excellent discussion of these and related issues.

Ron, Local food systems have been growing in tandem to conventional distribution channels for decades with very little mixing until a few years ago. Now we're seeing great demand for local product from conventional food distributors. We can't all buy at farmers markets all the time. We need to make normal marketing channels hospitable to smaller local growers. These farmers will have to abide by the same regs as corporate farms. A solution would be to equip coop extension and other agencies with the resources to help farmers transition to the new reality. Direct marketers should be exempt, traceback will not be an issue in those cases.
Cathie, Many in the ag industry, from small farmers to corporate giants, see barcoding as unnecessary. Most (all?) farmers engaged in wholesaling pack in boxes with their name on it. Why barcode in addition? I work for a fairly sophisticated distributor that barcodes product as received for all the reasons you cite. Many distributors aren't nearly as organized. While you may be correct that there are those with nefarious motives fighting these regs what I see are a bunch of very smart, but not the best educated, guys trying to buy and sell perishable commodities (whose prices sometimes fluctuate daily) as quickly as possible.

Yes to all that has been said -- we have two intertwining food systems -- and food is the least important concern of big ag. The small producers are, as Tony said, scrambling to get great food to market so anything that slows them down is an imposition. I am sure that most barcode IT is too complicated, time-consuming, and non-specific to be of much use to farmers.

IT is also big business, so instead of segmenting -- only a few companies try to meet the specific needs of the farmer/market/surveillance system, and similarly for each industry segment -- every software company tries to produce all-functions-for-all-folks megaware. And CDC hasn't worked with ag to develop data standards so that CDC could tap onto extant data. So it will be ??? years, and ??? more scares before a data stream is organized?