November, 2015

Fruits of Thought

Helmet Laws, The Dirty Dozen, FSMA And The Disincentives To Selling More Produce

Public policy decisions have to depend on more than idiosyncrasy. They have to depend on a good understanding of the situation  — and the situation is almost always broader than the issue at hand. Very often public policies have unintended consequences. 

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece titled Do Bike Helmet Laws do More Harm than Good? The gist of the piece is that helmet laws, though seemingly providing an obvious public health benefit, may not do so at all, for two reasons. First the statistics are tricky:

All-ages helmet laws might actually make cycling more dangerous, some cyclists say, by decreasing ridership. Research shows the more cyclists there are on the road, the fewer crashes. Academics theorize that as drivers become used to seeing bikes on a street, they watch more closely for them.

Second, anything that discourages cycling reduces exercise and has its own health impact:

Sedentary lifestyles can have quieter but wider long-term effects than bike crashes, such as billions of dollars in health-care costs for chronic conditions, they say.

Piet de Jong, a professor of applied finance and actuarial studies at Sydney’s Macquarie University, actually calculated the trade-off of mandatory helmet laws. In a 2012 paper in the journal Risk Analysis, he weighed the reduction of head injuries against increased morbidity due to foregone exercise from reduced cycling.

Dr. de Jong concluded that mandatory bike-helmet laws “have a net negative health impact.” That is in part because many people cycle to work or for errands, experts say. People tend to replace that type of cycling not with another physical activity such as a trip to the gym, but with a ride in a car.

In produce, the industry has long made similar arguments in regards to organic produce. The trenchant critique against the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen reports is all the research shows higher consumption of conventional produce is beneficial from a health standpoint. So if organizations such as EWG scare people away from conventional consumption but they don’t move to organic – say because of price or availability – but more to candy bars – then EVEN IF EWG IS RIGHT about the superiority of organics, the program may result in worse outcomes than just encouraging people to eat more produce.

Yet it is also true the produce industry has been prone to endorse lots of programs without any study as to their likely effectiveness. We will trumpet how much more produce is given out at a school or office in a snack fruit program, without ever studying how this impacts consumption at home. We will celebrate school salad bar programs without ever comparing whether long term consumption is best increased  by letting children make their own, often uneducated, choices – or if long term consumption is best boosted by offering composed salads, designed by chefs and optimized for flavor and digestibility.

As a result of the Food Safety Modernization Act, we have the FDA with lots of new powers, and it is publishing loads of new rules related to food safety. As Dr. David Acheson, now chief executive of The Acheson Group and formerly chief medical officer at the FDA, has written, “These new rules will literally impact hundreds of thousands of entities globally when one considers all seven new rules due out in the coming months and in the early part of 2016.” 

This is almost certainly a sign of trouble because it is impossible for any human being or team to have carefully considered the unintended consequences when so many entities are directly impacted. Dr. Acheson also stated: “FDA had to essentially write a one-size-fits-all set of rules, and the food industry is anything but one size.”

Recently, this columnist has received many calls and e-mails asking us to write about recent food safety outbreaks on cucumbers, spinach and other products. Many reporters have called asking what these producers have done wrong. Certainly, we have examples of people doing bad things when it comes to food safety. The Peanut Corporation of America showed a willful disregard for public health and people are, correctly, going to jail. 

In the fresh produce industry, though, even the most egregious problems are mostly matters of opinion. Is a dunk tank with chlorine better or worse than a spray system with fresh water? And in many of these cases, we have no reason to believe anyone did anything wrong. 

Even among the highest quality producers, food safety outbreaks are freakish events that pop up from time to time even with the best of procedures. In fact, there were no tests done before the passage of the FSMA that determined such a new regime would have any impact on the frequency of food safety outbreaks in fresh produce. 

It is certain the FSMA will bring extra costs. Equally, it is certain efforts to hold producers criminally responsible for food safety issues, even when they had no intent to do harm, will discourage production.

Ultimately it is certain that all this disincentive to produce and all this increase in cost will be reflected in higher consumer prices, which will impact consumption, and thus health. So whether the FSMA is going to improve public health outcomes is a highly debatable subject, but those who make these policies just want the opportunity to declare they did something. 

What they actually did may be completely counterproductive. pb