Helmet Laws, the Dirty Dozen, FSMA and the Disincentives to Sell Produce

Jim Prevor - The Fruits of Thought


Public policy decisions must depend on more than idiosyncrasy. They must 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 ran a piece, 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 that the more cyclists there are on the road, the fewer crashes there are. 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:

Some cyclists and academics say helmet laws discourage a convenient form of exercise in an era of inactivity. 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 in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Sydney’s Macquarie University, 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 made similar arguments in regards to organic produce. The critique against the Environment 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 scare people away from consumption, but they don’t move to organic — say because of price or availability — but move to candy bars instead — then EVEN IF EWG IS RIGHT about the superiority of organics, the program may result in worse health outcomes than just encouraging people to eat more produce.

Yet, it is also true the produce industry has endorsed lots of programs without real study as to their effectiveness. We will trumpet how much more produce is given out at a school or office, without ever studying how this impacts consumption at home. We will celebrate the school salad bar program without ever comparing whether long-term consumption is increased by letting children make their own, often uneducated, choices.

It is impossible for any human being, or even any team, to have carefully considered the unintended consequences of public policy decisions when so many entities are directly impacted.

Today, 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 even any team, to have carefully considered the unintended consequences when so many entities are directly impacted. 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.”

In recent months, we have received loads of calls and emails asking us to write about food safety outbreaks on cucumbers, spinach and others. Many reporters have called asking what these producers have done wrong. Certainly, we have lots of 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 for their crimes. The fraudulent use of melamine in animal food produced in China is another example.

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, as with the cucumbers, we have no reason to believe anyone did anything wrong. You have top producers being monitored by top marketers, and top customers intervening in the whole process.

The answer is that among 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 FSMA that determined such a regime would have any impact on the frequency of food safety outbreaks in produce.

FSMA will certainly bring extra costs. 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 will be reflected in higher consumer prices, which will impact consumption, and thus health. So, whether FSMA is going to improve public health outcomes is a 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.

Produce industry icon Jim Prevor, who founded Produce Business magazine in 1985, died Nov. 7, 2022. To honor his legacy as a maverick thought-leader, this space spotlights the best of Prevor’s “Fruits of Thought” column, which garnered more than 200 awards in business journalism.