Quiz: Do you think like the FDA on food safety?

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) was mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act to provide “science-based” standards for production of safe food. The rule that most concerns our farm is open for comment through this Friday November 15; the rule is known as “Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption.” We’re not at all impressed with it or the supposed science behind it, and we’ve written up a lengthy (but still not comprehensive) comment to submit to the FDA via regulations.gov (assuming the site starts working again; it seems to have picked up a bug from healthcare.gov). We challenge readers to this quiz about the proposed produce rule, which highlights just a few of the features that we consider to be most astonishing.

1)      The FDA defines what soil amendments it considers safest and least safe by defining the waiting period between application and harvest. Try ranking the following according to the FDA, bonus points for knowing/guessing the application interval:

  • a) Manure from feedlot-raised (overcrowded, antibiotic-fed, unhealthy) animals that has been heated and treated with ammonia–and that is at least momentarily a microbial blank slate waiting for microbial opportunists of unknown character to colonize it.
  • b) Raw manure from feedlot-raised (overcrowded, antibiotic-fed, unhealthy) animals.
  • c) Raw manure from pastured animals (such as our chickens or goats).
  • d) Compost made from bedding from pastured animals (such as our chickens and goats).
  • e) Treated human feces (and all the medications and other sketchy stuff that comes along with the sewage).

2)      How many illnesses attributable to produce has the FDA documented in an average year and how many does the FDA forecast that this rule will prevent?

  • a)      Documented: ~2 million/year. To be prevented: ~1.75 million/year.
  • b)      Documented: ~1,000/year. To be prevented: ~1.75 million/year.
  • c)      Documented: ~100,000/year. To be prevented: ~50,000/year.
  • d)      Documented: ~50,000/year. To be prevented: ~100,000/year.

3)      Which of the following items does the FDA consider to be “rarely consumed raw” (and thus exempt from  the practices that the FDA considers to be necessary for safe produce production)? Hint: 7 of the following are on the FDA’s “exhaustive” list of produce that is “rarely consumed raw.”

  • a) black beans
  • b) kale
  • c) chestnuts
  • d) water chestnuts
  • e) bamboo shoots
  • f) thyme
  • g) beets
  • h) figs
  • i) kidney beans
  • j) tomatillos
  • k) ginger root
  • l) garlic
  • m) sweet corn

Answers below the break.


1) By FDA’s reckoning, here’s the list from safest to least safe:

  • Safest”: a) Manure from overcrowded, antibiotic-fed, unhealthy animals that has been heated and treated with ammonia–and that is at least momentarily a microbial blank slate waiting for opportunists of unknown origin to colonize it. No waiting period between application & harvest.
  • Next best:  e) Treated human feces (and all the medications and other sketchy stuff that comes along with the sewage). The euphemism for this is “sewage sludge biosolids.” Produce is considered safe for harvest just one month after application.  Thank goodness organic rules still prohibit use of this shit.
  • Getting scarier: d) Compost made from bedding from our pastured chickens and goats would require a 45 day waiting period. Organic regulations allow use of such properly made compost with no time restrictions whatsoever. Compost that meets organic standard generally heats to above 131ºF for at least 15 days with 5 turns during the process; diverse microbes proliferate during the composting process and pathogens are generally doomed through competition. Have you heard of illnesses linked to compost use on organic farms?
  • Last place tie: b & c) Raw manure from overcrowded, antibiotic-fed, unhealthy animals ties with raw manure from our pastured chickens or goats. Both are considered equivalently unsafe and would require a 9 month waiting period between application & harvest. Organic rules allow uncomposted manure use with a 90 or 120 day waiting time (depending on the nature of the crop), but organic specifies that the manure should be incorporated into the soil.

2) By my reading of the numbers the FDA presents, the answer is b (Documented: ~1,000/year. To be prevented: ~1.75 million/year). Truly astoundingly, the FDA plans to eliminate three orders of magnitude more illnesses than it has been able to document. I thought this rule was supposed to be science-based, but by the sound of it, the FDA must be planning to pull off a miracle.

  • “Of the total reported outbreaks and outbreak-related illnesses linked to FDA-regulated foods between 1996 and 2010, in the FDA database, produce accounted for 23.3% and 42.3%, respectively. Both domestic produce and imported produce were identified as vehicles in these outbreaks. From 1996 to 2010, approximately 131 produce-related reported outbreaks occurred, resulting in 14,132 outbreak-related illnesses, 1,360 hospitalizations and 27 deaths” (from the proposed rule). For the 15 year period, that’s an average of 942 illnesses per year, 91 hospitalizations per year, and 1.8 deaths per year.
  • “We estimate the number of foodborne illness prevented by this regulation to be 1.75 million, with an associated benefit of $1.04 billion, annually” (from the proposed rule).

3) The following are “rarely consumed raw” according to the FDA: kale, water chestnuts, beets, figs, kidney beans, ginger root, and sweet corn. Google has over a million results for “raw kale salad” (in quotes).

The following produce types are covered by the rule, presumably consumed raw more often than those rarely consumed raw: bamboo shoots, garlic.

The following are never explicitly mentioned and should be assumed to be covered: black beans, chestnuts, thyme, tomatillos. Kidney beans and pinto beans get classified as “rarely consumed raw” but no such luck for white beans, black beans, or any other type of dried bean of the species Phaseolus vulgaris.

These rather arbitrary distinctions are just an indicator of how poorly thought out the entire proposed rule is. By extension of logic that foods that are rarely consumed raw need less regulation, the FDA should give up its war against raw milk, since milk, after all, is rarely consumed raw, and so it need not be regulated.

Not so sure about the FDA’s rule?

If you’re like us and think the FDA needs to go back to the drawing board regarding the produce safety rule, then there’s still time to comment. We’re finalizing our comment, and we plan to submit it to regulations.gov as well as to post it on our blog in the next couple of days. In the meantime, there are several good resources that provide good advice on submitting a comment. Here are a few:

Comments need not be lengthy, but its important for the FDA to get a clear message from supporters of small farms. Please tell the FDA what you think!

2 thoughts on “Quiz: Do you think like the FDA on food safety?

  1. Figs are rarely consumed raw? Is this the same fruit we are talking about? Am I an anomally?


    • Precisely the point. The FDA tries to make a black & white distinction where none exists, and the results are absurd. Raw kale salad is trendy these days. Grated raw beets make a nice slaw addition or salad topping, or even a salad in their own right, such as this one. Grated raw ginger root is a nice addition to slaw dressings, as well. I’ve never had the pleasure of encountering a raw water chestnut, but wikipedia points out that ” In China, they are most often eaten raw, sometimes sweetened.” Sweet corn is delicious raw, at least for those who are able to get some within a few hours of harvest. Figs, as you point out, are quite routinely eaten raw, as well.