Lawmaker Calls For Overhaul Of Food Recall System

Image courtesy of Natasha L.

Nearly two months after a preliminary audit found the Food and Drug Administration’s food recall process lacked effective and efficient processes to ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply, one lawmaker is calling for an overhaul of the agency’s systems.

During his usual weekend address, Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY) called on federal regulators to reconfigure the recall process, noting that the FDA isn’t doing enough to prevent contamination-related food borne illnesses.

Schumer cited the recently released preliminary report [PDF] from the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that suggests the FDA has taken far too long to initiate food recalls, as evidence for the need to overhaul the current systems in place.

Under the Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA has the authority to issue mandatory recalls. However, the agency must first provide food companies with the opportunity to issue voluntary recalls.

According to the report, which was released in June, the Inspector General found the FDA did not have an “efficient and effective food recall initiation process that helps ensure the safety of the Nation’s food supply.”

For the report, inspectors audited 30 voluntary recalls between October 2012 and May 2015 and found that, in some cases, the FDA worked to encourage companies to issue voluntary recalls months before‎ issuing a mandatory recall despite identifying potentially dangerous contamination in the product early on.

In one case, the report found that the FDA inspected food company nSpired in February 2014, confirming the presence of salmonella in its nut butter on March 7.

Seventeen days later, the agency learned that two people had fallen ill from this strain of salmonella. Still, the company didn’t issue a voluntary recall until August. By then, the Inspector General found at least 14 people in 11 states had fallen ill.

The FDA has only used its authority to issue mandatory recalls twice: a 2013 recall of salmonella-contaminated pet food, and the 2013 recall of an adulterated dietary supplement.

Overall, the Inspector General concluded that the FDA does not have adequate policies and procedures in place to fully protect consumers from obtaining tainted products and getting sick.

“Specifically, FDA did not have policies and procedures to ensure that firms or responsible parties initiated voluntary food recalls promptly,” the report states, noting that a lack of process allows potentially contaminated foods to remain on store shelves, putting consumers’ health at risk. “This issue is a significant matter and requires FDA’s immediate attention.”

On Sunday, Schumer pointed to the recently expanded E. coli-related flour recall as additional evidence of the slow process.

The first case of the flour-connected E.coli outbreak was reported in December, Schumer says, allowing for ample time to initiate a voluntary recall. However, the first recall wasn’t issued until May.

According to the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of July 25, 46 people in 21 states have been infected with the outbreak strains of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC). Of those illnesses, 13 people have been hospitalized, with one person developing a type of kidney failure.

“Delays in getting bad food off store shelves is just a recipe for disaster,” Schumer said. “That’s why the FDA must come to the table with a healthy, new plan, detailing how they will revamp and execute a reformed food recall process. One that gets potentially contaminated food off the shelves before Americans risk getting sick, not after.”