The Food and Drug Administration has been criticized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for being too slow to recall tainted foods, leaving consumers “at risk of injury or death.”
Though the FDA has had the authority to mandate food recalls since 2011, most food recalls are still voluntary, undertaken by the food producer in coordination with the FDA. The HHS investigators found that even after the FDA could be slow to force a recall even after determining that a food posed a health hazard, according to an article in the Bangor Daily News by Russ Van Arsdale, executive director of Northeast CONTACT, a nonprofit consumer organization.
Under the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, the FDA was given the authority to force companies to recall tainted foods, but it has used that power only twice, both times in 2013. After examining food recall records, HHS auditors issued what is known as a “rare alert” about the 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 investigators were also alarmed by two slow voluntary recalls that occurred in 2014. In one instance, 165 days went by from the time salmonella was found in nut butter until the recall was announced. The tainted nut butter caused 14 illnesses in 11 states. A 2014 listeria outbreak traced to cheese products made at lease nine people ill, but investigators say it took 81 days to complete a series of recalls for tainted products.
George Nedder, who led the audit, has over 24 years of experience with the HHS Office of Inspector General. He said the time it took to make the recalls was “problematic,” according to the Bangor Daily News.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has also criticized the FDA’s slow handling of food recalls. David Plunkett, the center’s senior food safety attorney, said the FDA should be using the authority granted under the 2011 food safety law to order food recalls, instead of waiting for manufacturers to issue voluntary recalls. Plunkett said the FDA has not effectively used its new recall power to protect the public and he said the agency “doesn’t appear to take informing consumers much more seriously [than some manufacturers] did,” according to the Bangor Daily News.
In a news release in response to the rare alert, the FDA called lengthy recall unacceptable but said such delays happen in only a minority of cases. The news release said the FDA is taking “concrete steps” to speed up recalls, including establishing a rapid-response team and introducing new technologies to make the process quicker. The news release did not elaborate 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, write, “Because the vast majority of companies choose a voluntary recall when presented with science-based evidence that their products are unsafe . . .the FDA has only rarely needed to use its mandatory recall authority.” Before the FDA issues a mandatory recall, the “scope of a contamination must be ascertained to determine how much of a product must be recalled. 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.”
Northeast CONTACT expressed concern that the food recall process—whether voluntary or mandatory—must work quickly in order to minimize the amount of time tainted food remains on shelves.