CDC

Here's a Federal Program That Actually Does Prevent Foodborne Illnesses

It's based on research and sharing information, not on more regulations.

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labwork
Credit: snre / photo on flickr

A new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine by a team of researchers, led by Professor Robert Scharff of Ohio State University, concludes that PulseNet, a 20-year-old partnership between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local health agencies, prevents more than 275,000 cases of foodborne illness each year. And it does so with a tiny budget.

I'm hard on the federal government when it wastes money on food-safety approaches that don't make our food safer. I've attacked often-senseless food-safety rules that have threatened to put small farmers, artisanal cheesemakers, local meat producers, and others out of business. I've criticized lapses and oversights in existing federal food-safety oversight.

But I've always held firm in stating that the federal government, along with states and local governments, has an important role to play in helping to ensure the safety of America's food supply.

It's not often that I get to point to a federally orchestrated food-safety program that's working. But I'm happy to report that's just what I get to do this week.

To learn more about PulseNet and the new study that details its efficacy, I spoke with Prof. Scharff by email this week. My questions and his responses are below.

Reason: What is PulseNet, and how does it work?

Robert Scharff: PulseNet is a network of state and federal laboratories that uses DNA fingerprinting of bacteria to find connections between seemingly isolated cases of foodborne illness. This makes it easier (more likely and faster) to detect outbreaks and track illnesses to their source.

Reason: Your new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine indicates that PulseNet prevents about 276,000 cases of foodborne illness every year. That's amazing. To put that in perspective, according to FDA estimates I've cited previously, the two key provisions of FSMA (pertaining to good manufacturing practices and fruits and vegetables) together would prevent—under a best-case scenario—as few as 488,500 cases of foodborne illness per year. PulseNet costs about $7 million per year. FSMA costs hundreds of millions of dollars annually. What does this say about where and how we allocate (or, perhaps, misallocate) our resources in this area?

RS: Markets work best when consumers have full information about the products they consume. There is too much emphasis in government on regulation (often promulgated with a weak scientific basis) and too little on helping market[s] work better through the provision of information.

Reason: Can you give one example of a notable success PulseNet achieved during its two decades of existence?

RS: The biggest success stories aren't largely known by the public because the source of an outbreak is identified before the outbreak becomes large enough to garner national media attention. That said, the large peanut butter outbreak in 2008-2009 that was detected by PulseNet likely would have led to many more illnesses had PulseNet not been in existence. The resulting bankruptcy of the Peanut Corporation of America and 28 year criminal sentence for the president acts as a strong deterrent to other food company leaders that may have otherwise considered the reckless behavior PCA engaged in.

Reason: You've argued that PulseNet information facilitates not just the tracking of foodborne illness but also more efficient markets. How so?

RS: PulseNet results in more efficient markets by allowing consumers (often through grocers as their agents) to make more informed choices about the foods they eat. Producers, wanting to avoid recalls, litigation, and negative reputation externalities, respond by being more careful and reducing risks associated with their food.

Reason: You've shown PulseNet is a dramatic success. That's the great news. But what percentage of public-health agencies around the country are using PulseNet right now? Why isn't every public-health agency doing so?

RS: All States have used PulseNet to some degree. The problem is that limited budgets have resulted in major differences in the number of samples that are tested. I'm not sure why more states aren't using PulseNet more because it is a relatively low cost solution.

Reason: Your study demonstrates that PulseNet is a collaborative government effort that has had a tangible and positive impact on the number of foodborne illnesses in the United States. You told me that you believe that PulseNet's "provision of information to markets (rather than regulation of markets) [is w]hat has led to this steep decline in illness." For example, your study shows PulseNet's faster "outbreak response led to significant reductions in reported illnesses" of two very dangerous pathogens: Salmonella and E. coli. Using this lens, why is PulseNet so successful? What are some efforts to prevent foodborne illness that are comparatively less successful? Why?

RS: There are two mechanisms that lead to PulseNet's success. First, by detecting outbreaks earlier, recalls reduce the number of people exposed to harmful pathogens. Second, by informing consumers (and grocers who act as their agents) about risks, PulseNet imposes market generated costs on those companies that are selling tainted foods.

One example of an intervention that has been less successful is the FDA rule on shell eggs that became effective in 2010. This costs egg farmers over $80 million a year to adhere to a wide variety of standards. Though a comprehensive risk assessment predicted that 79,000 cases of Salmonella Enteritidis would be avoided, a recent analysis found no significant reduction of illness from this regulation, but did find that, if there was a reduction, it was significantly less than the 79,000 predicted.

What bothers me is that the regulations coming out of the FSMA have shown less of an inclination to rely on good science than the egg rule did.

The problem with regulation based on design standards, generally, is that it applies a one size fits all approach on industry. With eggs for example, what works for a small 2,000 bird farmer in California may not be the same as what works for a large 100,000 bird farmer in Iowa. Regulation typically does not allow farms to pick the interventions that work best for them. Markets, enforced through potential costs of litigation and reputation loss, allows for more efficient and effective interventions to be used.

NEXT: The Man J. Edgar Hoover Blamed for Pearl Harbor

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  1. When big corporations push statism and claim that a lack of accommodation laws equate to discrimination:
    “NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard,” the league’s statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said. “Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites.”

    1. here’s the link.

      And the bill’s already been watered down.

      Under the bill, the NFL would be free to be as gay-affirming as it wants. There *might* be some *limited* protection for the right of others to pursue different policies than the NFL. Which I suppose is intolerable.

      Puritanism is the fear that somewhere, some small business will be able to make business decisions without a government agency bankrupting them in retaliation.

    2. I wish someone, like reason perhaps, would talk about what an incredible invasion of privacy the gay public accommodation laws are going to be. Most discrimination suits hinge upon the doctrines of disparate impact or hostile work environment. Since few people are dumb enough to tell the person they fired or failed to promote they are doing it in violation of the law and there is almost always at least a facially valid legitimate business reason for the decision, 90% of discrimination suits are just a exercise in numbers to determine if the defendants’ policies had a disparate impact or created a hostile work environment for the protected class.

      No one seems to have thought through how this would work in a case of gay discrimination. The only way you could determine if there was a disparate impact is to look at how many qualified and interested gays there are in the community and compare that figure to the number of gays who work for the defendant. That means every employer is going to have to know which of their employees are gay and which are not and know this upfront so they can hopefully avoid litigation or be able to defend it if it arises. It also means employees are going to have to answer questions about their sex life in public depositions every time one of these suits arises. These laws will subject everyone to the sort of massive invasions of privacy that are now reserved for defendants in sexual harassment suits.

      1. No one? I sure thought this thru. Even Barry Farber did, yrs. ago.

    3. NFL rules “prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard,”

      Why not physical impairment? We NEED one legged QBs.

      It’s already clear the NFL doesn’t discriminate on the basis of mental deficiency (see Browns, Cleveland)

      1. See also Goodell, Roger.

  2. OT. Here you go fellas. I mentioned in a Bloomberg conversation that true liberals are classical liberals and that libertarians espouse those view better than most and here’s a response I got:

    ” Spencer 8 hours ago

    Libertarians are Classical Liberals in the sense that they haven’t evolved in their political thinking in 100 years. Classical Liberalism and free market thinking made sense in the 1800s to some degree when most of the land and economic power was in the hands of aristocrats or elite families, because it gave ordinary people a chance to move up in life.

    However in reality things change and people realized to improve the quality of life for the population as a whole more social support was needed and a way to curtail the excess of business so it didn’t kill the air and water around us and paid enough so people could afford more than one meal a day.

    So yeah Libertarians are economic extremists because they really are outside the norms of modern politics and want to go back to an economic system from a time period which had way lower standards of living.”

    The derp is strong with this Cracker Jack.

    1. Libertarians don’t understand that The People are all children, and Government is our parent. Just as teenagers rebel against their parents because they don’t know better, libertarians rebel against government because they don’t know better. But government knows best in all things. Libertarians may respond by saying that government is comprised of people who are just as flawed as those that they govern, but that is just wrong. A miracle happens when people join government. They shed all of their flawed human nature and they become angels. All reality-based people know this. Duh.

      1. A miracle happens when people join government. They shed all of their flawed human nature and they become angels.

        Have you got a cite for that? I’ve always wondered if all government workers are angels because getting your paycheck signed by the government automatically makes you an angel or if all government workers are angels because the government only hires angels. The latter question leads to the question of: if the government only hires angels is it because there’s some sort of screening process – does the government somehow know who are the angels and who are not – or is there some unidentified “force” that attracts angels to and repels non-angels from government jobs? Or is it possible that this is the very definition of “angel” – one who is attracted to a government job?

        It’s been bothering me how that works and if you know of some source that has definitively answered the question I sure would like to see it for myself. It seems to me if you have a process whereby you can confidently screen angels from non-angels, this process should be widely adapted and I can’t figure out why the government keeps the process all to itself.

        1. I’ve always wondered if all government workers are angels because getting your paycheck signed by the government automatically makes you an angel or if all government workers are angels because the government only hires angels.

          Neither. It’s a matter of intentions. People in government have good intentions, unlike those greedy capitalists who only care about making a profit. That is what makes them angels. They serve the greater good, not their own selfish motives.

    2. Classical liberals are not libertarians. They are similar but not the same thing. Classical liberalism believes in national sovereignty much more so than Libertarians. While classical liberals believe that preserving individual freedom is the most important end of government, the do not believe it is the only legitimate end of government the way libertarians do. I think the best expression of classical liberalism is the preamble to the Constitution. It lists the legitimate ends of the purposes of the Constitution and by extension the legitimate ends of government. It says the document is written to:

      1. Form a more perfect Union (define the nation thus affirming national sovereignty)
      2. Establish Justice (not establish liberty but justice)
      3. Insure domestic Tranquility (again stability is a legitimate end not just personal liberty)
      4. Provide for the common defence (another legitimate function of government)
      5. Promote the general Welfare (likely the least libertarian of government ends)
      6. Secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, (finally last on a list of equals is personal liberty).

      Since most self identified conservatives these days seem to be retarded, they have little understanding of this. They talk like libertarians and think “liberty” is great and all that but they really can’t explain how they are different than Libertarians other than they don’t like pot, abortion and ass sex.

      1. Well, my exact words libertarians (heck, even conservatives come to think of it) today are the closest thing to classical liberalism.

        1. I consider myself a classical liberal and I have completely lost faith in most conservatives.

          1. I consider myself a classical liberal

            Haaaaaaaaaaa ha ha ha ha ha! Oh, that’s funny! Best joke I’ve seen all week! Hoooooo ho ho ho!

            Got any more?

            1. Go fuck yourself sarcasmic. Seriously, go fuck yourself. You were not even part of the thread and the thread was totally reasonable. Why do you feel the need to jump in and start hurling insults? I don’t do that to you. I may disagree with you but I don’t just walk into some random thread you have with someone else and start talking shit.

              What did I say that was that unreasonable? Why am I not a classical liberal? What position do I hold that is inconsistent with it?

              If you want to claim I am not what I say I am, explain it. Since you didn’t do that and just threw out unprovoked insults, I am going to assume you can’t and are such being a dick for no apparent reason. So, I say again, go fuck yourself.

              1. It wasn’t an insult, it was an observation. And no, I will not fuck myself. That’s my wife’s job.

                1. And she is out doing one of the toughest jobs in America. And its an observation you can’t explain or justify. So if it is not an insult, it is nothing.

                  1. And she is out doing one of the toughest jobs in America.

                    Not really. As long as I haven’t had anything to drink, it’s one of the shortest shifts any job can have.

                    1. Yeah but the penis barbs do make it a challenge.

      2. Despite all the time you spend here, you have some serious misconceptions about libertarians. You’re just plain wrong. Libertarians are classical liberals in that we support laissez faire economics. That’s the core of classical liberalism, and the core of libertarianism. Why you can’t understand that simple concept is beyond me. It’s been pounded into your head too many times to count, and you still don’t get it.

        1. Really? Are restrictions on immigration and tariffs on foreign trade “libertarian”? If they are, it will come as a huge surprise to a lot of people. They are sure as hell consistent, thought not required, by classical liberalism. And while we are at it, so are things like public roads, zoning laws and about a million other things Libertarians object to but were perfectly fine under classically liberal governments.

          That is not to say which system is “better”. Better is a question of what you value really. But the two systems, while similar, are not the same.

          1. Most economists who would call themselves “classical liberals” would not support those things. They may resign themselves to the reality that government is going to do those things anyway, but that is not the same as supporting those things.

            1. Most economists who would call themselves “classical liberals” would not support those things

              First, most economists I know would not refer to themselves as that. Most of them call themselves Democrats, a few call themselves Marxist and a few more Libertarian. Moreover, not every economists rejects those things. The debate is much more varied and contentious than you think. Before he became a circus clown at the New York Times, Paul Krugman made an entire career as an economist working through those issues. I can assure you, he does support those things under certain circumstances and he would not call himself a classical liberal.

              1. Here’s the thing about you that pisses me off and that I’m sure pisses a lot of people off. You like to tell me and other libertarians what we really believe, as if you know what is in our heads better than we do. You don’t.

                So do us all a favor. Go fuck yourself. Pretty please. With sugar on top. Go fuck yourself.

                1. So you don’t think Libertarians view personal freedom as the only legitimate end of government? Really? If not that, then what do they believe? Just what is Libertarianism if not the primacy of the individual and their sovereignty over any claims for the collective good?

                  I wasn’t aware saying “Libertarians believe that personal freedom is the most important thing in society and protecting it the single aim of government” was particularly controversial.

                  1. The over-all prevailing ethos driving libertarian thought is the non-aggression principle. I think this can be co-opted into a liberal or conservative framework so long as this principle isn’t compromised.

                    So, to me, libertarians (who are not a monolithic group) do accept all those points you mentioned above to the extent it doesn’t infringe on civil liberties in the form of state coercion.

                    Where I *think* it gets messy is the idea that you need to coerce people into accepting the reality of needing to create a strong military, intervention in the economy, preserving laws etc.

                    1. Rufus,

                      The importance of the NAP stems from the importance of freedom. The reason why aggression is wrong is that it interferes with freedom.

                      And yes, it gets messy. In the same way conservatives often have a hard time explaining why they are not Libertarians, Libertarians often have a hard time explaining why they are not anarchists.

                  2. Actually, John, “not doing harm to another” is the most important thing in society according to libertarian principles. Personal freedom is limited and subordinate to that.

      3. Promote the general Welfare (likely the least libertarian of government ends)

        Once you understand what was meant by “general welfare”, it sounds a lot more libertarian.

        First, its actually a restriction on what government can spend money on, in the Tax and Spending Clause:

        The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

        This is an enumerated power. It says the government can collect money to be used for three and only three purposes – to pay its debts, to provide for defense, and to provide for the general welfare of the United States. Handouts, transfer payments, charity – all the stuff we call “welfare” now, is not the “general welfare of the United States”. Broadly, it means the government can spend money on stuff that benefits everyone, like, wait for it, roads. Transfer payments do not benefit everyone, so they don’t count.

        The use of the same term in the Preamble has the same meaning – that the government is founded to benefit everyone, not some at the expense of others.

    3. So yeah Libertarians are economic extremists because they really are outside the norms of modern politics and want to go back to an economic system from a time period which had way lower standards of living.”

      There is so much wrong with this that I don’t know where to begin.

      Extremism is the bogeyman du jour. If I disagree with a position then it is extreme and I am of the norm. Those standards of living improved because of classical liberalism not in spite of it as this person would have us believe. More social problems have been solved through economic improvement than through government mandate.

      1. First, the economic system of 200 or even a hundred years ago was not strictly libertarian. Beyond that, whatever you call that, that system produced the greatest improvement in living standards in the history of civilization. These people are so stupid they have no idea how this country was built. They really think electricity magically comes from the power company and the only reason everything isn’t free is because the damned corporations insist on stealing from us.

        1. First, the economic system of 200 or even a hundred years ago was not strictly libertarian.

          I don’t know anyone who ever claimed that it was.

          They really think electricity magically comes from the power company and the only reason everything isn’t free is because the damned corporations insist on stealing from us.

          They don’t think anything. They feel. If they could think then they wouldn’t be leftists.

          1. I don’t know anyone who ever claimed that it was.

            You just did above when you claimed libertarian and classical liberal are the same thing. It sure as hell was classically liberal.

            1. I said they share the same basic premises, not that they are the same thing.

              1. If they are not the same thing, then you can be a classical liberal without being a libertarian. I agree with you. So, why are on shitting all over the thread Rufus and I were having claiming I am not a classical liberal, as if you own the term or something?

    4. Libertarians are Classical Liberals in the sense that they haven’t evolved in their political thinking in 100 years.

      Not the least bit ironic coming from people whose core cultural and economic principles originally derive from The Communist Manifesto, first published in 1848, and whose most modern public policy proposals were formulated before 1920.

  3. From the CDC link: “King Nut is produced by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) in Blakely, Georgia. King Nut peanut butter was not sold directly to consumers but was distributed to institutions, food service providers, food manufacturers and distributors in many states and countries…”

    I wonder if that had something to do with the media not latching on to it as well.

    “The problem with regulation based on design standards, generally, is that it applies a one size fits all approach on industry.”

    It always comes down to the impractical application of ‘one-size’ fits all. But with boobs like Spencer up top it makes perfect sense I reckon.

  4. “I’m not sure why more states aren’t using PulseNet more because it is a relatively low cost solution.”

    It would be interesting to find out why, no? PuleNet sounds like a no-brainer to use if government is serious about protecting the public.

    1. Regulation typically does not allow farms to pick the interventions that work best for them. Markets, enforced through potential costs of litigation and reputation loss, allows for more efficient and effective interventions to be used.

      There’s the answer to why more states aren’t using PulseNet. PulseNet may be a low cost solution to the problem of getting quickly on top of food-borne pathogens, but that’s not the problem they’re trying to solve. Markets do allow for “more efficient and effective interventions” only if you don’t consider that a bureaucracy’s main focus is on growing the bureaucracy. “Low-cost solutions” and “efficiency” have to be defined in terms of “how do we protect the public while at the same time growing the bureaucracy?”

      It’s kind of like asking Eli Manning how the NY Giants can score more touchdowns and expecting him to answer “Oh, they should fire me and get a better quarterback.” Any answer he gives is predicated on the assumption that the question is “How can the NY Giants score more touchdowns with Eli Manning as their quarterback?”

      1. Nice take.

        1. I just recently read an aggravating piece by Warren Meyer on cap-and-trade carbon tax which is one of those things that make perfect sense only if you don’t consider the aims of the bureaucracy. Having the EPA set a goal and letting the market determine the best way to reach the goal sounds great, but it’s got no chance of ever getting off the ground if you fail to take into account that “the goal” as far as the EPA is concerned includes increasing the power of the EPA.

          You have to judo their ambitions by finding some alternative outlet for their greed just as much as Adam Smith taught that competition judos capitalists’ natural greed into serving the public’s interest. Walmart doesn’t serve their customers because they’re great humanitarians, Walmart serves their customers because they’re greedy. So how do you get the EPA to serve their customers as efficiently as Walmart serves theirs? I don’t have the answer to how you appeal to the EPA’s greed in such a way that they are led to better serve their customers – I just know any plan that doesn’t take their greed into account isn’t much of a plan.

          1. Yep.

            The original, partial, answer to this dilemma was the separation of powers, which would set various power centers against each other, where one power center’s growth would come at the expense of the others.

            Naturally, that has been subverted comprehensively. We now have pretty much a unitary national government – exactly what the Founders tried to prevent.

    2. if government is serious about protecting the public.

      I think we have our answer.

    1. Back when they wouldn’t let the gays in, Reason was all over the story. I am sure reason will be all over this too. Right? Right?

      1. “The parade committee has banned pro-life groups for decades ”

        Reason’s umbrage must have been spent years ago

        1. Perhaps so.

          1. But now it’s harder for them to claim “we don’t allow *any* political groups to ruin the celebratory mood of our parade,” which they might have claimed with a straight face before.

  5. So the govt didn’t completely fuck something up. Can we set the bar a little higher?

  6. But I’ve always held firm in stating that the federal government, along with states and local governments, has an important role to play in helping to ensure the safety of America’s food supply.

    Fuck off, slaver.

    1. I would say that the government does have a role to play, at least insofar as that somebody has to enforce the NAP – but then you run into that age-old question of who enforces the NAP against the NAP enforcers? It’s like hiring a hungry bear to guard your refrigerator while you’re gone. If you’re confident nothing’s going to get past a hungry bear, what’s your plan for when the hungry bear decides you’re not getting past him either?

  7. Here come the anarchists…

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