“Primum non nocere”

It's a Latin phrase that means “First do no harm,” expressing one of the principal precepts that all medical students are taught in medical school and a fundamental principle for emergency medical services. It is a reminder to physicians and other health care providers that he or she must consider the possible harm that any intervention might do.

We mention it here, as a suggestion perhaps, to the United States Department of Agriculture, the FDA and other federal agencies that are charged with controlling the production and with regulating the safety of our food supply.

Recent actions by both of these agencies have shown a tendency to act first and think later — and damn the consequences.

The most obvious example is the salmonella outbreak that cost Southeastern tomato growers millions of dollars. You can read more about it - and its estimated cost to Georgia growers - in this issue of Southeast Farm Press.

To summarize, the FDA in April issued a nationwide warning that tomatoes were a possible source of a salmonella outbreak that made 1,220 people ill in 42 states, the District of Columbia and Canada. After a long investigation, the FDA recently determined that fresh tomatoes now available in the domestic market are not associated with the current outbreak and the agency has rescinded its warning against eating certain types of red raw tomatoes.

In Florida alone, where fresh tomato production is a $1.3 billion industry, it's estimated that grower losses could be close to $100 million, and that's not including the continuing sales losses due to the decline in consumer confidence. Since the FDA's initial declaration, the agency has traced the outbreak to jalapeno and serrano peppers from Mexico …oops.

Florida's agriculture commissioner is charging that the FDA failed to share information with state regulators that could have helped narrow the focus of its investigation earlier, and there are calls for a complete overhaul of the nation's food safety system, especially as it relates to trace-back programs.

In a recent Congressional hearing, a Florida official made the invaluable suggestion that agencies such as the FDA shouldn't throw away common sense in assessing risks.

Not to be outdone, the USDA apparently has decided that since it didn't get the farm bill it originally wanted — the Johanns version — it'll just rewrite the one that was passed into law over two Presidential veto attempts.

In case you haven't been paying attention, USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agriculture Floyd Gaibler offered a peanut loan rate differential proposal for the 2008 crop year. Many in the peanut industry were understandably shocked by this turn of events, especially since they thought the new farm bill was a done deal and this particular proposal was never discussed during negotiations.

Under the proposal, it's estimated that Georgia peanut farmers would lose $7 million or a minimum of $7 per ton of peanuts. Since USDA first released the proposal on May 30, they have announced an extension so the 2008 crop would not be affected. However, long-term implications remain if the rule is allowed to take effect for the 2009 crop and beyond.

Peanut commodity groups such as the Southern Peanut Farmers Federation are in the process of trying to stop efforts by the deputy undersecretary to implement the proposed cuts, and the group is calling on growers to contact their congressmen and senators to protest this action.

The bigger question here is how did a second-tier bureaucrat manage to usurp the wishes of the U.S. Congress by arbitrarily rewriting the rules?

First do no harm — it should be stamped on the foreheads of everyone working in Washington, D.C.