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Is the FDA really gagged on cheese?

Opinion

Richard Raymond

Richard Raymond

Editor’s note: This column by Richard Raymond, a medical doctor and the former undersecretary for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, was originally published by Feedstuffs FoodLink on March 22 and is posted here with permission of the author.

Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that there has been a huge cheese recall going on now for over two months, involving over 130 products and dozens of companies.

The recall began on Feb. 10, 2017, and has gradually expanded as more and more retailers and companies realize the offending product, processed by Deutch Kase Haus LLC in Middleburg, IN, may have been used in their own cheese production process.

The possible contamination is from Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria found in the environment, not animals’ intestinal tracts, and one that can take 70 days for symptoms to show so, there is no way to know how many people may become ill from eating bad cheese.

Listeria infections are especially dangerous in pregnant women, often causing the death of the fetus.

Despite the huge, far flung recall, the Food and Drug Administration is saying they cannot release the names and locations of stores that sold the recalled products because that is considered “confidential corporate information.”

illustration dog asks says whoSays who?

When I was Nebraska’s chief medical officer it did me little to no good when I was informed that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was recalling 100,000 pounds of ground beef distributed to grocery stores in Nebraska.

I wanted to know the names of the stores and the towns or cities they were located in so I could advise the local public health departments to go to work informing their residents and protecting their health.

When I was asked to move to D.C. to head up FSIS as its politically appointed undersecretary, I knew I wanted to change the mindset that would not allow FSIS to release “proprietary information,” as the agency referred to the excuse that prevented them from releasing helpful information, or “confidential corporate information” as FDA has labeled the bureaucracy they hide behind on this issue.

I went to D.C. in 2005. The FSIS revised rule on “proprietary information” was posted in the Federal Register in 2008. That is actually pretty fast for Washington D.C., a city of 12 square miles surrounded on all sides by sanity.

Naturally the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the American Meat Institute were adamantly opposed to naming outlets possibly selling contaminated meat and poultry, along with many other associations and alliances, but common sense and sanity did actually prevail and now USDA does provide the stores’ names and locations when there is a recall.

Part of my argument for change was that people would not quit shopping at their favorite grocery store if a product was recalled due to contamination that was not the store’s fault. If they kept buying from the same supplier, and kept having recalls, then all bets on customers staying with them would be off.

But that in its self may be a good thing that could produce change in purchasing patterns and safer products.

Hand with money isolated on the white backgroundMy other argument was simple: Which is more important, the life of a child or the bottom line on a company’s financial report?

Even GMA did not have a good response to that question.

Of course to win this battle I first had to have the full support of then Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns. I had worked for Gov. Johanns in Nebraska as his chief medical officer for six years, so there was more than a little bit of trust built up.

Together we had to persuade the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to allow the rule making process to proceed to fruition.

The moment that agreement occurred was actually on “a dark and stormy night” as the top OMB official and myself, along with many others, sat in a hanger at Andrews Air Force Base waiting for a thunderstorm to pass so we could fly to Belgium for high level talks with the European Union.

It is a long story that I won’t go into, but I doubt I would have ever gotten her undivided attention the way I was able to get it that evening without the lightening delaying the flight.

illustration woman with slice of cheeseSo what is the “clause in the Federal Code” that FDA says has them gagged, while others may actually be gagging on contaminated cheese?

Several reporters and writers have asked me that question, and I have no answer other than it seems to me that USDA/FSIS blazed the trail and FDA finds it easier to sit by the camp fire rather than follow the trail and the fights that come with it.

So I will close with a few questions for you to ponder:

  • How can corporations claim confidentiality while potentially causing miscarriages and deaths?
  • How can FDA, a federal agency housed within the Department of Health and Human Services, not fight for the right of the fetus to live a healthy life?

After all, it is Health and Human Services, not Commerce, right?

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For additional information on the related recalls, please see:

 

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