Opinion: Time to rewrite the FDA’s voluntary recall system

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Danielle Sheppard

Covering agriculture for almost three decades, you can imagine the number of sources that I have cultivated: USDA officials, trade industry communication spokespersons and CEOs, lawmakers, administration officials, farmers and ranchers, big (and small) ag companies, weather folk, crop scouts, market analysts — the list is seemingly endless.

All of whom, on various days, are filling my email box with all sorts of stories to cover and issues to discuss. Rising to the top of the pile today is the Food and Drug Administration’s voluntary food recall system.

Not a week goes by without some food manufacturer putting out a voluntary recall for some problem or another.

In the past few weeks you have:

— Newark, New Jersey, based G & M Co recalling about 3,586 pounds of beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli.

— Noblesville, Indiana, Butterfield Foods, LLC recalling about 15,966 pounds of broccoli salad dressing product that may be adulterated with listeria.

— Farmerville, Louisiana, Foster Poultry Farms recalling about 220,450 pounds of fully cooked frozen chicken nuggets that may be contaminated with extraneous blue plastic and black rubber materials.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Because there are so many recalls, only the largest ones that result in death or sickness generally rise to the level of media attention. A few immediately come to mind:

— In 2009, Nestle Toll House Cookie dough was linked to an E. coli outbreak that hospitalized at least 25 people.

— In 2010, two Iowa egg producers, Hillandale Farms and Wright County Egg, recalled almost half a billion eggs after Salmonella enteritidis sickened more than 1,000 people.

— In 2011, Cargill ground turkey was linked not once but twice to salmonella that killed one person and sickened another 75.

In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that, every year, some 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die because of foodborne diseases.

And that’s what happens when the FDA’s voluntary system works. Which brings me back to an email that recently hit my inbox.

A new report from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General warns that:

Our ongoing audit of FDA’s food recall program found that FDA did not have an efficient and effective food recall initiation process that helps ensure the safety of the Nation’s food supply. Specifically, FDA did not have policies and procedures to ensure that firms or responsible parties initiated voluntary food recalls promptly.

Well, duh!

The OIG offered up this poster child. Turns out that FDA did not issue a voluntary recall for an outbreak related to nut butters for more that five months after it knew of the problem.

It’s no secret that the FDA voluntary food recall system is terribly flawed.

It’s equally no secret that the powerful Grocery Manufacturing Association likes the voluntary recall system just as it is. Something has got to give. Are you listening Congress?

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.


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