Consumers are “at risk of injury or death.” That’s the kind of headline you’d expect to see in tabloids and on the talking head interview shows.
However, the above quote came from investigators for the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They were referring not just to the commercially produced foods that made people sick but also to the slow pace of recalling tainted foods.
Those recalls are supposed to be handled by the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. But the investigators found that, even after foods had been determined to pose health hazards, in some cases the agency was slow to force recalls.
Auditors had looked at 30 voluntary recalls from October 2012 to May 2015. They issued what’s termed a “rare alert” about two mandated recalls, saying “consumers remained at risk of illness or death for several weeks after FDA knew of potentially hazardous food.”
The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, or FSMA, gave the FDA the power to force companies to recall tainted products; it has used that power only twice, both times in 2013.
Recalls of salmonella-tainted pet food and adulterated dietary supplements came months after FDA learned of the problems.
Investigators also were troubled by two voluntary recalls. The first case occurred in 2014, when salmonella turned up in nut butter. The investigators say 165 days passed from the time the problem surfaced to the date the manufacturer issued a recall. There were 14 illnesses reported in 11 states.
Later that year, a listeria outbreak was traced to cheese products. The alert said it took 81 days to complete a series of recalls; at least nine people became ill.
George Nedder, who led the audit, was blunt. “I think the time that these recalls took were problematic, absolutely.”
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, has taken FDA to task over all voluntary recalls. Senior food safety attorney David Plunkett called on FDA to use the authority in FSMA to issue recalls, instead of letting manufacturers issue recalls voluntarily. Plunkett said,
“Unfortunately, based on the agency’s actions to date, the FDA hasn’t done much to implement those recall provisions and doesn’t appear to take informing consumers much more seriously [than some manufacturers] did,” he said.
The FDA fired off a news release following the rare alert. It stated that while lengthy delays happen in a minority of cases, such delays are still “unacceptable.” The release said the FDA is taking “concrete steps” to speed the pace of recalls.
“These steps include the establishment of a rapid-response team made up of agency leaders and the introduction of new technologies to make the process even swifter,” it stated.
The release did not indicate how those new technologies will operate.
In an agency blog, the FDA’s Dr. Stephen Ostroff and Howard Sklamberg wrote that deadlines are needed, but they won’t all necessarily be short. “The time needed to collect evidence can vary, but to request a recall without evidence risks recalling the wrong product and leaving consumers vulnerable to contaminated food that is still on the market,” they wrote.
Leaving contaminated food on store shelves is what concerned the auditors in the first place. We’re anxious to see FDA’s future recall record. See our blog for links to FDA recall information.
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Editor’s note: Consumer Forum will not be published the week of June 26. It will return the week of July 3.