Last week on the first of the month, I wrote about Melamine Creep – the idea that the discovery of a foreign substance in our pet food has made its way into the feed of pigs and chickens. Now we can add fish to the list.
This new announcement raises a lot of serious questions that deserve answers if the true goal of crisis communications here is to comfort the public and policy makers and to demonstrate the efficacy of the agencies involved:
- If the contamination has reached the feed of fish, as reported in the Washington Post, and the FDA and USDA has said that they do not believe that the contamination will have caused harm to humans that have eaten the fish, it means that the melamine has likely been here for quite some time (unless we are feeding and eating really tiny, baby fish) in order for fish to have eaten the contaminated food and for us to be eating them. Therefore, how long has the melamine importation been going on before it was discovered and why did it take incidents of pet deaths to discover the problem?
- The Washington Post also carries the report that David Acheson, the FDA’s new food safety czar (also appointed May 1) is "optimistic" that this won’t affect humans. While he is not quoted as using that word, and one hopes he didn’t, it is cold comfort it phrased in that way. But it does raise the question that if the FDA and USDA stated in a joint release last week that farmers would be compensated for euthanized swine, and then said it was ok to eat chickens and are "optimistic" about fish – why the change in policy? Why should the swine be euthanized and the chicken and fish are ok – or if none are being euthanized, what specifically caused the change? I would imagine that the USDA wanted to reassure swine farmers early on and are now no longer talking euthanization due to low risk, but the inconsistency raises the question nonetheless. A key to good crisis communications is consistency or an explanation of sudden changes.
- The globalization of our food supply has admittedly raised challenges, and Dr. von Eschenbach in a USA Today opinion piece has stated that the FDA is on top of the job here. But while the appointment of David Acheson is a step, three questions are paramount – How did the melamine extend so far into our food supply before we noticed it? The risks due to melamine might be low – but what if they were not? What is the comprehensive plan for making sure this extreme vulnerability is rectified? Will the next headline read anything about melamine finding its way into the cereal we ate for breakfast?
- Lastly, the FDA and USDA announced in a joint release that "To ensure no further contaminated products enter the U.S., the federal government will continue to monitor imported wheat and corn gluten as well as rice protein concentrate and isolates arriving from all countries destined for human and animal consumption. The FDA import alert for these products sourced from China remains in effect and U.S. Customs and Border Protection will continue laboratory testing of the products as they enter the U.S. The inspections are a precautionary measure to ensure the safety of products entering at U.S. ports of entry. There is no evidence to suggest products bound for the human food supply are contaminated." – That is good – but what steps are being taken to ensure this doesn’t repeat itself. Former FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford had, through many public statements, made food safety a paramount initiative. What happened to that?
- And then one question that I’m curious about, why is this a problem in the U.S., but no mention of it in Europe? Do they not import from China?
It is easy to armchair quarterback a crisis – and that is not the intent here. But the issue does raise important answers – ones that will inevitably be raised by Congress in the future. It would do the agencies involved, as well as the public, well to enunciate the answers now, if at all possible.