A Conversation with Dr. David Acheson, Assistant Commissioner at FDA – Anatomy of the Salmonella Crisis from this Summer

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Something very good happened and something kinda bad for me yesterday.  The good part is that I had the opportunity to sit down again with Dr. David Acheson, Assistant Commissioner for the FDA in charge of Food Safety.  The bad part is that during our conversation, my digital audio recorder malfunctioned and I lost the very first few moments of our conversation.  Total bummer.  Fortunately, the malfunction occurred within a few minutes of our talk and the bulk of it was in the second, signaled by me saying "go on" to Dr. Acheson.  What can I do?  I don’t make the recorders.

I sat down with Dr. Acheson not because the salmonella issue is still hot news.  It, like the summer, is over, at least according to the CDC on the latter front.  But it seemed like a good time to look back at what happened.  And there is little doubt in my mind, that it will serve as a milestone in coming discussions on the Hill about the reform of FDA.  After all, the salmonella crisis was serious – tomato producers lost money, there was a sickening loss of crop and the American public and key stakeholders and policy makers were doubting whether or not the FDA was in a position to really protect the public health on food.

What followed were hearings and lots of news coverage.  What I saw was Lou Dobbs criticizing the FDA and those who work for it and congresspeople hammering questions to representatives of the FDA.  As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am a critic of the agency and the way it has handled itself the past few years.  But, the efforts of media and members of Congress struck me as particularly unfair.  I think that the FDA has had little opportunity to communicate what happened.  That is why I interviewed Dr. Acheson.

Now, then my recorder had it’s Rose Mary Woods moment.  Here is what we talked about during the first few minutes of our interview.

Dr. Acheson outlined what happens at the beginning of an outbreak like salmonella.  First, a few people eat an infected food.  From all of those that eat that food, a relatively small number will be sick enough to go to the doctor.  When they go to the doctor, he/she may take tests such as a stool sample, that then come back to the physician.  The physician then makes a diagnosis.  The number of those diagnoses, if there are enough, become a signal.  From the time of that signal, public health officials then take notice and let us know that there is a problem, where the CDC. the government arm that monitors outbreaks and covers epidemiology, takes note of an emergent pathogen.  The CDC then tells the FDA that there is an issue.  At that point, the FDA begins the investigation into where the problem originated and begins to talk to the patients about what they ate. 

Listen to the podcast.  It is long, but if you are interested in this issue, it is illuminating.  My apologies to Dr. Acheson for my recorder, but the meat is here.

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By way of disclosure, during the salmonella crisis this summer, I worked with a member of the produce industry. 

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