A new report by government oversight officials suggests that the FDA may be endangering American lives by moving too slowly to issue recalls in cases that result in food poisoning outbreaks.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released the report on Wednesday, as part of an ongoing audit of the FDA’s food recall program. The report details the FDA’s delays in issuing food contamination recalls, saying the agency’s recall process is inefficient.
The Office of Inspector General is an internal government enforcement arm which monitors for waste, fraud and abuse. The OIG reviewed 30 FDA recalls that occurred between 2012 and 2015 and found that the agency did not have an “efficient and effective food recall initiation process that helps ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply.”
According to the report, there were multiple instances of extremely long waits between the FDA becoming aware of a problem and then actually recalling the affected food. In one instance, the tainted food was not recalled until 165 days after the FDA was first aware of the problem and in another case 81 days after.
In a cucumber Salmonella outbreak highlighted as an example in the report, the tainted food sickened 900 people in 40 states, hospitalizing nearly 200 and killing 6. The outbreak began in July 2015, and it took until September 2015 before the cucumber recall was announced.
In another salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter and almond butter, the FDA failed to make the recall for 3 months after advanced DNA testing confirmed salmonella contamination and 165 days after the agency first discovered salmonella in food samples. The outbreak affected 14 people in 11 states.
The OIG is calling for an immediate revision and implementation of policies and procedures governing food outbreak recalls.
New Food Recall Procedures Recommended
While FDA officials called the report’s findings unacceptable, they also said the agency is committed to food safety and called the cases outliers of a selective sampling where recalls occurred slowly.
FDA officials say they have a plan underway to strengthen compliance and enforcement, which includes voluntary and mandatory recalls.
They also warn that recalls should be based on scientific evidence from investigation findings and are concerned about setting arbitrary deadlines. timeframes, saying each recall should be handled on an individual bases according to the circumstances.
The agency has responded to the OIG report by establishing a team of experts from varying scientific disciplines to oversee outbreak investigations. They also highlighted the agency’s adoption in 2014 of whole genome sequencing, which is a much more precise way to determine the genetic fingerprint of foodborne pathogens.
Critics say it is shocking the FDA doesn’t have policies to ensure quick food recalls, yet, call attention to the food regulations in the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act that requires companies to minimize food safety risks and have recall plans that will take effect this fall.
The FDA oversees 80% of the nations’ food supply, including dairy, fruits, vegetables and seafood. The agency traditionally relies on voluntary recalls to remove tainted food from market, but the 2011 law gave the FDA power to order recalls in cases that pose serious harm.