U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) yesterday called for major changes as it relates to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) food recall process. Schumer wants to ensure the agency is doing absolutely everything it can to prevent future contamination-related food illnesses. Schumer’s push comes following a recently released preliminary report conducted by the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which suggests that the FDA has taken far too long to initiate food recalls, therefore allowing potentially contaminated foods to remain on store shelves and putting the public’s safety at risk.
“Delays in getting bad food off store shelves is just a recipe for disaster,” said U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. “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. We expect our everyday food purchases from the local supermarket to be safe to eat, but following a recent Inspector General’s report, it appears many Americans are getting a sour deal and sour stomachs. The food recall process too slow and unduly exposes countless Americans to food that can make them sick – or even kill them. In some cases, the FDA waits months before issuing recalls on potentially contaminated food products. That’s why I’m urging the FDA to conduct a top-to-bottom review of their contaminated food recall process with an eye towards speeding things up.”
Just this week, an additional 15 million pounds of flour was recalled due to a 21-state E.coli outbreak. The first confirmed case of the outbreak began in December 2015, however, after allowing ample time to initiate a voluntary recall, the first mandatory recall wasn’t issued until May of this year; 45 million pounds of the flour have now been recalled. Schumer today said that these kinds of delays in getting bad food off store shelves is a recipe for disaster that must be fixed by the FDA.
Schumer said that many everyday food products have been recalled this year, including some in New York. For instance, a company that ships to New York recently recalled 3,500 pounds of beef products following E.coli concerns. Additionally, in February, a New York company recalled 3,000 pounds of chicken products used in chicken salad due to concerns of Listeria.
According to the FDA, since May 31st, there have been at least 57 recalled products issued due to listeria, salmonella and other bacteria. Recalled products include: cheese, frozen vegetables, cereal, biscuit mix, cake mix, sunflower seeds, raw macadamias, granola bars, rice, ice cream, and more. According to the CDC, approximately one in six Americans or 48 million people get food poisoning each year.
Currently, the Food Safety Modernization Act allows the FDA authority to issue mandatory recalls, however, the agency must first provide food companies with the opportunity to issue voluntary recalls. Since the Food Safety Modernization Act passed five years ago, the FDA has only issued two mandatory recalls. In February 2013, the FDA recalled pet food because of salmonella and in November 2013, the FDA recalled an adulterated dietary supplement. New FDA regulations issued as a result of this law require companies to be in full compliance with the rules regarding recalls by mid-September of this year.
A recently released Inspector General preliminary report examined extreme instances of food recalls from the last few years. The results suggest the FDA’s recall process can be improved and does 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, inspectors audited 30 voluntary recalls between October 2012 and May 2015 and found that, often times, 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. For instance, the FDA inspected nSpired, a food company, in February 2014 and confirmed the presence of salmonella in its nut butter on March 7th. Seventeen days later, the agency learned that two people had fallen ill from this strain of salmonella. In August, months later, the company issued a voluntary recall. By that time, at least fourteen people in 11 states had fallen ill. The Inspector General says that the firm did not initiate the voluntary recall until 165 days after the FDA became aware of the potential contamination in part due to a lack of established recall procedures and timeframes at the agency.
Similarly, in July 2014, the FDA found listeria in cheese products from Oasis Brands. Later that month, the company recalled just one specific product. In October 2014, a full-scale voluntary recall of all potentially contaminated products was issued. By that time, at least 9 illnesses in 6 states—including one infant who died— were linked to the tainted products. The Inspector General says that the firm did not initiate the voluntary recall until 81 days after the FDA became aware of the potential contamination.
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, the Inspector General has suggested that the FDA update its policies and procedures by instructing its recall staff to establish set timeframes for the FDA to request firms voluntarily recall their products and firms to initiate voluntary food recalls.
Schumer on Monday said that the FDA is far too slow when it comes to getting potentially contaminated food off store shelves. Schumer urged the FDA to take action and quickly conduct a top-to-bottom review of its food recall process to ensure that products are being recalled in a timely manner so that future consumers are kept safe from tainted food.