The Exalted FDA

No one who has grown up in the produce industry, as I have, can begin to write or even think about the cyanide incident affecting Chilean grapes without an enormous sense of sadness. Innocent people, who have worked hard their whole lives, had their livelihood pulled out from under them and their life savings put at risk. Importers, wholesalers, retailers, plus all the people of Chile stand as a victim to an act of terrorism. But in this case, the terrorists who put cyanide in some grapes were foiled. Not one person fell ill or died as a direct result of their terrorist actions. But although the terrorists failed to achieve victory through poisoning, they were handed another victory by an FDA official looking for a chance to stand tall. By its actions, the FDA established that terrorists will be allowed to disrupt international trade and our domestic economy at very little cost or risk to themselves.

The FDA’s actions can only be understood as a consequence of the agency’s political position. Pressure had been growing for some time for the agency to prove that they would stand up for food safety. Suddenly, the golden opportunity appears. An acute risk-filled with the drama of a well-known poison gives the FDA a chance to show how tough they are in protecting the healthfulness of the nation’s food supply. What’s more, and this is the bonus that made it all possible, the primary victims of the policy would be 4,000 miles away down in Chile. Finally, the FDA shrewdly realized that even the major industry groups, such as the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, would likely not go to bat for the Chileans.

Partly this is a matter of numbers. There just aren’t that many importers to make them that powerful in Washington, DC, or for that matter, in the UFFVA.

But perhaps even more problematical, is that United has put itself in a position of being compelled to support the FDA right or wrong, and this position has placed the produce industry in an extremely vulnerable position.

United President Robert Stroh has staked out his position clearly as related to pesticides and the food safety issue. Stroh believes that the way to resolve the whole issue is for everyone, including consumers, retailers, advocacy groups, etc. to recognize the legitimacy and correctness of the FDA. In an interview Stroh gave with Supermarket News, he stated United’s position succinctly: “What needs to happen, as we see it, is once again the Food and Drug Administration needs to be perceived as the official spokesman for food safety.”

The motivation behind this position is understandable, and Stroh clearly has the best interest of the industry at heart. More than the produce trade needs any specific rule, it wants and needs predictability. If the FDA could actually be respected by all parties (from self-proclaimed consumer advocates to scientists, to the produce trade) as some kind of “official spokesman for food safety” – whose decisions would not be challenged by anyone – it would make it a lot easier to function in the produce industry.

Regardless of motivation, however, the strategy of exalting the FDA has some major problems. First of all, it seems highly unlikely that anyone aside from United will agree to suspend their critical faculties at the shrine of the FDA. The world has just changed too much to expect such trust and respect for government authority. Once upon a time, when Franklin Roosevelt was president, respect for the office was so great that no newspaper would run a photo of him in a wheelchair. Astonishingly enough, the media so protected the president that during Roosevelt’s term in office that large percentages of the American population had no idea that President Roosevelt had been a victim of polio.

But those days are long gone. At least since Vietnam and Watergate, the media has adopted an adversarial stance toward authority. Distrust of the government has run rampant throughout society. The simple fact is that you add all this in with the traditional American skepticism about authority (remember we did have a revolution because we didn’t like a king’s dictates), and it is pretty clear that the chance of establishing the FDA as an ultimate authority is somewhere between zip and none.

But what really disturbs me about Stroh’s attempt to set up the FDA as an authority, is that doing so makes it almost impossible for United to oppose important FDA decisions.

If the FDA is to be the “official spokesman for food safety” and everyone is going to accept their dictates; that means the produce industry has to go along too. After all, if Roger Stroh were to disagree with the FDA, he would be acknowledging that the FDA is fallible. Then surely Meryl Streep and Ralph Nader would also have the right to disagree with the FDA.

Unfortunately, the industry depends on Washington to actively defend produce industry interests in Washington. Sometimes this means disagreeing with the FDA. In addition, this public declaration of a policy that compels United to agree with the FDA, in advance, no matter what, undoubtedly inclines politically shrewd FDA officials to try and appease the activists who have taken no such pledge. After all, the industry will support them no matter what, so the FDA officials better worry about other sources of protest.

The industry should be extremely concerned over what United has been endorsing. On March 15th, United issued a statement saying “that the Food and Drug Administration took prudent action to ensure public safety when it announced the temporary detention of Chilean fruit from supermarket shelves…” What policy, precisely, is it that United feels is prudent? To put it another way, if in the heart of the California shipping season, we receive two anonymous calls saying that fruit will be poisoned and then find two California grapes with harmless trace amounts of cyanide in them, is it the position of United that banning the shipment of California fruit from the market would be the “prudent” way to deal with the problem?

Or does the standard of prudence change because California has more voting members of United than does Chile?

The point is that the industry has to abandon the chimera that the FDA will ever again be an “official spokesman for food safety” and to recognize that the industry as a whole, individual commodity groups, individual shippers and retail organizations, as well as individual consumers, will all have to take responsibility for food safety. Food safety is not an absolute concept, any more than auto safety is a simple thing. Some people go out and pay more for Volvos, or for large cars, or for cars with airbags because they feel they are safer. There is nothing wrong with people feeling some produce is safer than others.

The FDA still can serve a useful purpose by helping people to understand and evaluate the risks that life poses. Surely the FDA could be very helpful in providing information and education which assists individuals and organizations in minimizing risk. For example, in each case of the Chilean grapes, the proper things for the FDA to have done is to have informed the public about the situation, told people how to inspect their grapes and the let individual consumers, retailers, and others decide what to do. United should have taken the lead against giving in to the FDA’s overreaction, and they ought to have protested against allowing policies to interfere with sound policy.

What makes this so unacceptable to Stroh, and in fairness, to many in the industry, is that it means the FDA would no longer be guaranteeing the safety of all produce. But, the truth is that this is a bankrupt insurance policy. Everyone now realizes that it is impossible for the FDA to guarantee absolute safety. Even the FDA has acknowledged this.

Today, Chilean fruit is allowed back on the shelves. There exists some increased security in Chile and more aggressive inspection of Chilean produce upon arrival in the U.S., but it is all a charade to allow the FDA to save face. Our fresh supply is neither safer nor more dangerous than the day the terrorist called. So let’s drop the pretense of assuring absolute safety and get on with the business of selling produce. Realize that safety is not an absolute but more a product attribute.

How this fiasco will change the industry is difficult to assess. Perhaps the world has become so vulnerable to terrorists that our packing sheds will need to become more like food processing plants with each item carefully monitored and placed in a tamper-resistant consumer package with instructions for consumers to discard it if found open.

Perhaps branding will become much more important as a source of security for consumers concerned over food safety.

Perhaps organic produce will become more popular. Perhaps consumers will choose produce retailers based on the integrity of their safety program. Perhaps small greengrocers will enjoy a renaissance as consumers turn to a trustworthy face they know to buy produce, or perhaps big chains will gain as they have the facilities to test and inspect more thoroughly.

Predicting the future is always difficult. However, when Bernard Baruch, the noted financier, was asked his opinion after the stock market crash of ’29, he responded with the only answer sure to be correct: “it shall fluctuate.” Equally, the future of the produce industry may be unclear, but the one thing we can be certain of is that change is a constant and there is no doubt that tomorrow’s produce industry will be different than today’s. The important point here is that whatever the future brings, it brings opportunity for those not mired in the past. For every produce firm that shrinks from the concept of selling food safety, there exists another who recognizes food safety as a producing, packing, marketing and merchandising challenge – a challenge which, if met, can lead to profit. We need enlightened industry leaders who are not afraid to stand up to the FDA and represent the industry. We need leadership that will help guide the industry to a new future. We need leadership that stops trying to restore the past that can never be rebuilt.