Monday, December 11, 2006
Op-ed in the New York Times -- Has Politics Contaminated the Food Supply?, by Eric Schlosser. Apart from noting breakdowns in regulation and the resulting illnesses, the op-ed piece also endorses recent proposed legislation to create a single federal food-regulation agency:
Last year, Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, both Democrats, introduced an important piece of food-safety legislation that tackles these problems. Their Safe Food Act would create a single food-safety agency with the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens, demand recalls and penalize companies that knowingly sell contaminated food.
It would eliminate petty bureaucratic rivalries and make a single administrator accountable for the safety of America’s food. And it would facilitate a swift, effective response not only to the sort of inadvertent outbreaks that have occurred this fall, but also to any deliberate bioterrorism aimed at our food supply.
The Safe Food Act deserves strong bipartisan backing. Aside from industry lobbyists and their Congressional allies, there is little public support for the right to sell contaminated food. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you still have to eat.
Article in the New York Times -- Prognosis: In Smoking, Research Finds, Cutting Back Won’t Do, by Eric Nagourney: "Smokers who say they just can’t quit are sometimes told to at least cut down. But even if they reduce their intake by half or more, they are unlikely to see much benefit, a new study reports. . . . It is unclear why those who cut back did not seem to be healthier. One possibility, the study said, is that to compensate for the cigarettes they give up, smokers inhale smoke more deeply and smoke more of each cigarette."
Article in the New York Times -- Stronger Rules on Produce Likely After Outbreaks of E.Coli, by Andrew Martin:
With processed fresh produce like bagged salads and baby carrots growing in popularity in the past decade, the Food and Drug Administration realized as long ago as 2000 that recommendations for safe handling of the products were needed.
The agency went so far as to draft guidelines and kept the issue high on its priority list, but pressed by budget cuts and competing F.D.A. demands, the proposal languished.
Now, with the recent outbreaks of E.coli related to processed vegetables, the F.D.A.’s oversight of produce is likely to be treated with new urgency.
“I think it’s fairly clear that something needs to change,” said Dr. David Acheson, the chief medical officer for the F.D.A.’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Regulations for produce could be part of the changes, he said.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Interesting commentary in the New York Times -- When Questions of Science Come to a Courtroom, Truth Has Many Faces, by Cornelia Dean. One of the ongoing debates in mass torts is of course the role of science, and the Daubert standard puts judges in a position of determining scientific reliability, which can be awkward given judges' usual lack of scientific training. The issue was highlighted this week when during oral argument in a global warming case, Justice Scalia was corrected about the ultimate destination of carbon dioxide, and Justice Scalia responded, "Troposphere, whatever. I told you before I’m not a scientist.” Here's an excerpt:
[I]n a large case involving silicone breast implants, the judge chose a panel of advisers to recommend experts to review scientific aspects of the accusations. Their report cleared the implants of any role in systemic disease, but only after a multibillion-dollar trust had been established to compensate the supposed victims.
Other judges, worried about their ability to hear cases hinging on complex topics, have organized their own seminars on subjects like DNA evidence. According to Sheila Jasanoff, a lawyer and professor of science and technology studies at the Kennedy School at Harvard, scholars and officials have from time to time also proposed creating a judicial or quasijudicial “science court” to resolve factual disputes. Generally, lawyers don’t like these ideas, in part because they fear the influence such a supposedly objective entity might have with juries.
The idea “has largely been abandoned as unworkable,” Dr. Jasanoff wrote in her book “Science at the Bar” (Harvard University Press, 1997).
But even if lawyers and judges could routinely absorb a thorough grounding in the scientific issues they confront, there would still be trouble. For one thing, the state of scientific knowledge changes rapidly. Sometimes, there are multiple scientific views of a given issue, all potentially credible. And sometimes research on an issue does not even begin until it works its way into court. To an extent, that was the case with the silicone breast implants.
Article in the New York Times -- Taco Bell E. Coli Tests Clear Most Foods, by the Associated Press:
Taco Bell announced Saturday tests have ruled out all its ingredients except one -- scallions -- as a possible source of a harsh strain of E. coli that has sickened more than 60 people in the Northeast.
The green onions had been pulled from the company's 5,800 restaurants nationwide on Wednesday after it said preliminary tests showed scallion samples contained the E. coli strain, and it no longer plans to sell them, said Rob Poetsch, a spokesman for the Irvine, Calif.-based company.
Poetsch said samples from the company's entire menu were collected from multiple restaurants in several states for the independent testing done by Certified Laboratories in Plainview, N.Y.
Another interesting article in yesterday's New York Times -- E. Coli Fears Inspire a Call for Oversight, by Marian Burros -- which details moves by the produce industry asking for greater government regulation:
Facing a loss of consumer confidence in fresh fruits and vegetables because of repeated outbreaks of food-borne illness, three major produce industry groups have for the first time called for government regulation in an industry that until now has had none.
One of the groups, Western Growers, says it has gone further, meeting over the past six weeks with state officials in California to draw up an agreement that would call for a formal system of farm inspections, regulations of water and soil quality and sanitation and even cease-and-desist orders for violations.
The agreement may be ready by spring, said Tim Chelling, vice president of communications for the group, which represents growers in California and Arizona who account for half the nation’s produce. “Anyone who ignores this,” Mr. Chelling said, “will be out of business.”