Sunday, December 11, 2016

Getting Rid of Science

One message of last month's election is that the American People want to be rid of science. Regulation that relies on scientific evidence is detested or held in contempt. We are told that the free market will take the place of science in holding dishonest companies in check.

From Reuters: Peanut factory
in Georgia that intentionally shipped
contaminated products.
I've been thinking about this theory about the free market vs. science. As an exercise in understanding the concept, I've looked up the case of salmonella-contaminated peanut products that happened a few years ago when "714 people in 46 states were sickened, some critically" and nine people died.

According to an article in CNN titled "For first time, company owner faces life sentence for food poisoning outbreak" (September 21, 2015), the case was incredibly persuasive. "Federal inspectors found roaches, rats, mold, dirt, accumulated grease and bird droppings during their raid. They also found a leaky roof." Two owners and the quality control manager at the plant where the tainted peanuts were processed are now serving their sentences, though justice took something like 8 years to be realized.

How did anyone know where the salmonella outbreak came from? Obviously, each person who came down with a salmonella infection couldn't have possibly identified the source of their illness. The contaminated peanut products were shipped from the deteriorating plant to other food manufacturers (shipped, one might note, even if they had failed required tests for contamination; shipped with a cynicism so great that the jury could render the exceptional guilty verdict). A wide variety of other corporations, believing that they had purchased legitimate goods, used the peanut products in a variety of foods.

To find the source -- a plant that had criminally avoided inspection -- a lot of SCIENCE was needed. Here is an extremely technical explanation from the CDC, which illustrates the amazing complexity of identifying the source of a disease outbreak:
On November 10, 2008, CDC's PulseNet staff noted a small and highly dispersed multistate cluster of 13 Salmonella Typhimurium isolates with an unusual DNA fingerprint or pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) pattern reported from 12 states. On November 25, CDC's OutbreakNet team, working with state and local partners, began an epidemiologic assessment of that cluster, which had increased to 35 isolates. On December 2, CDC and state and local partners began an assessment of a second cluster of 41 Salmonella Typhimurium isolates. The PFGE patterns of the second cluster were very similar to the patterns in the first cluster and were first noted by PulseNet on November 24, as a cluster of 27 isolates that had subsequently increased to 41 isolates. Neither of these patterns were seen previously in the PulseNet Salmonella Typhimurium database. The clusters also appeared similar epidemiologically, so the two patterns were grouped together as a single outbreak strain, and the investigations were merged. (source)
You just have to look at this paragraph (not read it!) to know how little the free market could do to enable consumers to act when there's an outbreak of food contamination. If there are any heroes in this story, they are the unnamed scientists and federal inspectors who quietly work to protect the public.

Here's what worries me: the new administration coming to Washington, with an anti-science mandate from the voters who elected them, has promised to take measures to make the FDA and the CDC less powerful and effective. They promise not to bother businessmen like the owner of the peanut plant who wrote of a contaminated batch of his product "Just ship it."

The three convicted people from the Peanut Corporation of America, "starting their second year behind bars," filed a briefs on November 28, 2016, asking to have their convictions and sentences overturned. One of the reasons why the lawyers claim their clients should be freed is that they say the jury should not have been aware that people died from the contamination! (source)

Maybe our new leaders will pardon these business people and encourage them to go back to making lots of profits without regulation.

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