When it comes to the Food and Drug Administration’s new power to force a food recall, the agency isn’t saying how and when it plans to use that authority — or if it will even share that information with the food industry.
According to a report from the Government Accountability Office, the FDA believes the Food Safety Modernization Act doesn’t even require the agency to release information on what would trigger a mandatory recall or how it would be handled.
“FDA officials told us that they have not decided whether they will do so and that FSMA contains no such requirement,” according to the GAO report.
The GAO report recommends the FDA to issue regulations or industry guidance to clarify the new recall process. The Food Safety Modernization Act gives the FDA the power to recall food and medical products. Before, and used only in rare cases, the FDA could shut a company down for food safety violations, but not force a product recall.
In addition, the report says FDA should be better at alerting the public about recalls and outbreaks.
Congress ordered the GAO study, which also asked the FDA to find ways companies could be compensated if the agency falsely implicates a particular company or food in an outbreak or recall, such as when tomatoes were blamed for an outbreak caused by peppers in 2008. According to the report, critical challenges include balancing accuracy with timeliness and coordinating messages with other agencies.
Even so, one industry leader had no pressing complaints about agency practices regarding recalls.
“Everybody knows (FDA) has recall authority but they have never used it and never needed it,” said David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.
However, he said it is good that FDA has mandatory recall authority in their “toolbox” if they ever do need it.
What’s more, Gombas said voluntary recalls are handled consistently by FDA.
“I’ve not seen any issues on recall communications,” he said.
While investigations have had problems at times, Gombas said recall communications are very accessible.
The Food Safety Modernization Act directs the FDA to post recall notices in stores.
“I know they are working with the retail industry now to figure out how to best to do that,” he said. “My concern with that is that overcommunication can be just as bad as undercommunication if after a while consumers simply get numb and they don’t look at it.”
Gombas said retailers with loyalty cards can give shippers recall notices by e-mail or phone.
“I think that is a lot more effective than posting a list of all the foods that have been recalled in the last month,” he said.
Costco and Wegman’s have used loyalty cards for that purpose, he said.
The government has never compensated food producers for erroneously ordered food recalls, according to the report. Two ways of addressing that could be government-subsidized insurance or a separate dedicated program funded by Congress.
“Individuals GAO interviewed said that a potential advantage of a dedicated program would be assurance to industry that a mechanism would be available, but a potential disadvantage may be that in lean budget times, funding for such a program may be difficult to obtain,” according to the report.
In addition, defining what constitutes an error or mitigating the potential for unintended consequences is complicated, according to the report.