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Health & Human Services Inspector General Criticizes Slow Pace of Food Recalls

Jul 8, 2016

Investigators for the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say that the slow pace in recalling tainted foods puts consumers "at risk of injury or death."

Food recalls are supposed to be handled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the investigators found that, even after foods had been determined to pose health hazards, in some cases the FDA was slow to force a recall, the Bangor Daily News reports in an article by Russ Van Arsdale, executive director of Northeast CONTACT, a nonprofit consumer organization.

HHS auditors who looked at food-recall records issued 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," according to the Bangor Daily News.

The Food Safety Modernization Act, passed in 2011, gave the FDA the authority to force companies to recall tainted foods. The FDA has used that power just twice, both times in 2013. The investigators also were troubled by two voluntary recalls. The first case occurred in 2014, when salmonella was found in nut butter. The investigators say 165 days elapsed from the time the problem surfaced to the date the recall was issued. Fourteen illnesses were reported in 11 states. In another 2014 incident, a listeria outbreak traced to cheese products sickened at least nine people. Investigators say it took 81 days to complete a series of recalls.

George Nedder, who led the audit, said the time it took to make the recalls was "problematic, absolutely."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has criticized FDA over voluntary food recalls. The center’s senior food safety attorney David Plunkett called on the FDA to use the authority in FSMA to issue recalls, instead of letting manufacturers issue recalls voluntarily. Plunkett said the FDA has not done much to use its recall power and "doesn’t appear to take informing consumers much more seriously [than some manufacturers] did," according to the Bangor Daily News.

The FDA, in a news release in response to the rare alert, said lengthy delays are unacceptable but they happen only in a minority of cases. The news release said the FDA is taking "concrete steps" to speed up recalls. The FDA said it is establishing a rapid-response team of agency leaders and is introducing new technologies to make the process quicker. The release did not indicate how the new technologies will operate.

In an FDA blog, Dr. Stephen Ostroff, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine and attorney Howard Sklamberg, deputy commissioner for global regulatory operations and policy, wrote that deadlines are needed, but the deadlines will not necessarily all 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. Northeast CONTACT is concerned that the recall process-voluntary or mandatory-work quickly enough to minimize the amount of time tainted food remains on store shelves and in restaurant and institutional kitchens.

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