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Klobuchar and the Killer Cantaloupe

We are being seriously mislead by politicians who promise one thing and deliver quite another.  Sen. Amy Klobuchar D-MN is one such leader.  We have laws that are supposed to make things work better.  If the laws they pass don’t do that, we are being gravely miss-served by those representatives and they should be thrown out.  This is an object lesson of one tiny, infinitesimal part of our socio-economic interaction and how Sen. Klobuchar is doing Minnesota, and the nation, a serious harm with poorly conceived and badly managed laws, laws that promise to give us clean, safe food, but in reality give us nothing in return but misery.

The Case

From the CDC website, “Among persons for whom information is available, illnesses began on or after July 31, 2011. Ages range from 35 to 96 years, with a median age of 78 years old. Most ill persons are over 60 years old or have health conditions that weaken the immune system. Fifty-eight percent of ill persons are female. Among the 67 ill persons with available information on whether they were hospitalized, 66 (99%) were hospitalized.”  In late July and early August, listeria, a food-borne illness, began taking its toll nationwide.  The food infected with these bacteria was not known at the time.  Food inspectors and doctors interviewed those stricken by the illness and figured out that cantaloupe was probably the carrier of the disease.  It was then deduced the particular cantaloupe was from Colorado and a specific region was identified.

“Laboratory testing by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment identified Listeria monocytogenes bacteria on cantaloupes collected from grocery stores and from an ill person’s home. Product traceback information from Colorado state officials indicated these cantaloupes also came from Jensen Farms.”  The state health department discovered that the particular strain of Listeria infecting these people was from a specific place.  It was traced back to a farm where these cantaloupes were grown and harvested.  It was then possible to pull all these cantaloupes from store shelves and warn consumers that the outbreak wasn’t from cantaloupes in general but specific cantaloupes grown and handled from a single source.  On September 14, 2011, the FDA sent a press release out that announced Jensen Farms, the producer of the listeria-ridden cantaloupe, had issued a voluntary recall of their melons.  A month and a half later, the source of the listeria was revealed but the toll was shocking.

From NPR, October 19, 2011, ’FDA probe points to cantaloupe packing plant as source of listeria,’ “As of yesterday, the outbreak has been blamed for at least 25 deaths and 123 illnesses in 26 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. While the casualties have slowed since September, they still may creep up, given the long incubation period of listeria, officials say.”  So, we have a serious problem.  Food poisoning is a national issue because it is commerce that spread across state lines.  It took over a month to completely identify the cause and pull the offending produce from the shelves.  This sounds like a job for the federal government, right?

From a press release in 2009, Sen. Amy Klobuchar argues, “The first responsibility of a government is to protect its citizens,” said Klobuchar.  “Ensuring that Americans have safe food is a basic issue of public safety, health and consumer protection.  Whenever contaminated food is allowed to reach consumers, public trust in the integrity of our food supply and the effectiveness of our government is undermined.”  It would appear Klobuchar is on the case.  She identifies the problem and has proposed a solution.  She goes on to make this claim, “Making sure we have annual inspections of facilities that pose the greatest risk to the American public will go a long way towards ensuring this doesn’t happen again.” Her remarks were in response to a peanut butter/salmonella case that was happening at the time.  Klobuchar is promising that her food safety bill will ensure food borne illnesses will not occur.  That is a good thing, but will it deliver?

The Remedy?

We have a food safety system in place.  We have inspections by the FDA and the USDA already in tandem with local and state officials.  We have food labs to analyze possible sources of contaminations and insurance company inspectors and agents who make sure the businesses follow good sanitation standards and practices.  In fact, we have many layers of oversight of our food from the farmers who grow and raise this food to the processing plants and wholesalers.  Safe practices trickle all the way down to the retail level.  So, what is the system Klobuchar proffers that will, in her words, “go a long way towards ensuring this doesn’t happen again.”

On January 4, 2011, President Obama signed Klobuchar’s food safety legislation into law and handed broad powers to the FDA to fix our poisonous food supply.  For half a year, the FDA has been gearing up for using those powers to ensure our food is safe.  What do these remedies include?  From the FDA website:

“Preventive controls

It also requires FDA to establish science-based standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables to minimize the risk of serious illnesses or death.

Inspection and Compliance

Applying its inspection resources in a risk-based manner

Imported Food Safety

requires importers to perform supplier verification activities to ensure imported food is safe

Response

For the first time, FDA will have mandatory recall authority for all food products. While FDA expects that it will only need to invoke this authority infrequently since the food industry is largely compliant with FDA’s requests for voluntary recalls, this new authority is a critical improvement in FDA’s ability to protect the public health.”

Powers of the New FDA

Let’s look at these new powers granted to the FDA.  The first, a science based prevention model already exists in the industry.  Giving the FDA the power to insure this happens simply applies another level of bureaucracy to the food industry.  While farmers and ranchers will be complying with local and state provisions, they will now be subject to federal mandates and the accompanying paperwork this will create.  We just reinvented the wheel.

Second is inspection and compliance.  Instead of just having state and local inspectors at packing and processing plants, we will have federal inspectors rifling through more paperwork and looking for problems.  Should a problem not exist, these inspectors will find one creating more cost and more hassle for the food producing industry.  No one has even taken into consideration the sheer enormity of this layer of bureaucracy, except Sen. Tom Coburn R-OK.  He argued it would cost 14 billion a year.  He was being generous.

Imported food safety is already part of the inspection process and once again, just adds another cost and meddling government entity to the mix.  Customs already does an exhaustive job with imported food, yet we are now charging the FDA with making sure the billions of tons of food imported comply with regulations they will fancifully create to make their jobs important.

The FDA will also be allowed to mandate recalls.  Since no producer has ever refused to voluntarily recall their products if they were harmful, this seems like yet another pointless exercise in law.  If a producer refused to recall their product, they would be drummed out of the market by the bad publicity.  The FDA’s powers seem to be unnecessary.

The Dilemma

From the Vegetable and Melons Yearbook Data, updated 05/11/2011, compiled by the USDA.

In 2010, the United States consumed 2.6 billion pounds of cantaloupe.  With an average weight of 6lbs, we collectively ate about 433 million cantaloupes which is only about one and a half per person.  We grew about 300 million of those here in the country and imported about 133 million of them.  We planted 126, 000 acres with cantaloupe vines.  That is 197 square miles of fields committed to growing just cantaloupe.  Cantaloupe isn’t even one of the major categories of foods we consume.  However, this does give us a peek into the enormity of the food production system in the country.  For comparison, if we look at potatoes, Americans eat an average of 112 lbs per year.  We produce over 34 billion pounds of potatoes and utilize over a million acres growing them.  That would be like planting the entire state of Rhode Island with just potatoes.

Can you imagine trying to inspect, regulate, and micromanage all the food we grow from a centralized authority?  This isn’t just a law that is unmanageable.  This is a law that intends to defy the laws of physics.  We are supposed to just pretend this is possible?

Applying the Remedy

Let’s now apply Klobuchar’s new law to the Case of the Killer Cantaloupe.  The law is on the books and the FDA is busily writing regulations and hiring inspectors and bureaucrats to ensure compliance with the law as we speak.  It just isn’t up and running yet.  So, what happens a year from now when the FDA is busy making sure our food is safe with needless regulation and pointless federal bureaucracy.

To prevent the Killer Cantaloupes, the FDA would have had to inspect 197 square miles of cantaloupe fields to find the one farm that produced these melons.  Since local and state agencies are already doing this, it’s highly unlikely the FDA would have discovered the problem.  Besides that, we still aren’t entirely sure what caused the melons to be contaminated.  They have theories, but they’re really just guesses.

From NPR’s April Fulton, ‘FDA Probe Points To Cantaloupe Packing Plant As Source Of Listeria,’ “A farm truck used to haul cantaloupes to a cattle facility — increasing the risk of contamination via animal feces — is one possibility.

Also, Magary says, the packing facility has a floor that allows water to pool and contains equipment previously used on another crop — potatoes — that wasn’t “easily cleanable and sanitized.” And, the packing facility is open to the air.” October 19, 2011.

Almost three months after the fact, the FDA is throwing darts at a dartboard.  They haven’t a clue.  The report concludes the water used to wash the cantaloupe and the equipment tested negative.  The melons in the field were negative. They found some contaminated produce in cold storage but that still didn’t answer the question of what standard was not followed.

We are left with an uneven concrete floor and the fact a farm was open air.  It would be near impossible for us to grow our produce in hermetically sealed operating rooms with perfect antiseptic conditions, so what conditions must be mandated and enforced?  Are we going to have inspectors citing farms for uneven floors and packing crops in the fresh air?  Are we going to hyper-inspect 300 million cantaloupes with swabs to detect what pathogens may be present?  What are we going to do about the 34 billion pounds of potatoes?  Grow them in sterile hydroponic jars in laboratories?

We’ll all frickin’ starve.

So, then we get to the inspections and compliance.  The standards required would put all farms and processing plants out of business.  The world is a big, dirty, infected place and there simply is no way to insure every bite is bacteria free.  Any biologist would laugh his ass off if you suggested it as a possibility.  We are all simply crawling with microscopic life, so that’s a nonstarter.

The FDA and local and state officials were all following the epidemiological model the law suggested.  It collected the data from the victims and traced it back to this farm.  They recalled the product as soon as it was discovered as contaminated.  What is this law supposed to do?  It can’t defy the laws of nature, yet that is exactly what Klobuchar and her busy-body, do-gooding arguments would have you believe.

Laws Defying Nature

This is the growing dilemma in this country. We have supposedly well-meaning politicians who are promising a world where life would never allow us to suffer a hangnail.  We have people in power who are absolutely clueless about a subject but still promise us safety and security.  Sen. Klobuchar has given us that in spades.  She’s promised bridges that will never fall down, pool drains that will never give harm, and now food that will never cause illness.

All we’ve really gotten in return is more government, more bureaucracy, and enormous debt.  That and an outbreak of Killer Cantaloupes.

Crossposted at Looktruenorth.com

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