Putting the U.S. food supply at risk, the Food and Drug Administration has generally failed to promptly initiate recalls, allowed some food companies to continue shipping despite failed inspections and often ignored its own procedures.
That’s the conclusion of the FDA’s Office of Inspector General in a new report, based on a year-long evaluation of study of 17 food recalls from 2007 to 2008. The study included a variety of food recalls, including those involving cheese, mussel meat, fish and four separate recalls of fresh cantaloupes from Honduras.
The inspector general’s office directed the FDA to review the report as it implements the Food Safety Modernization Act.
The FDA, the produce industry and other food companies need to improve recall practices, said Dave Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology at the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.
“Because food recalls are such a rare event, most companies aren’t prepared to do an effective recall,” Gombas said. “It is a weakness for both FDA and food facilities.”
Amy Philpott, senior director with Watson Mulher LLC, Washington, D.C., said companies want to do the right thing.
“I’m not convinced it matters if (food recall guidance) is mandatory.”
Produce companies can face different expectations from regional FDA food recall coordinators depending on what part of the country they live, she said.
Gombas said he recently counted about 60 fresh produce recalls in 2010. He said every fresh produce marketer should take steps to be ready for a recall.
“It is the difference between a painful recall and a very painful recall,” Gombas said.
Joe Pollock, category manager for Wuhl Shafman Lieberman Corp., Newark, N.J., said the company has well-documented recall procedures. The company was one of four involved in the 2008 recalls of Honduran cantaloupes, along with Firebaugh, Calif.-based Legend Produce, Gonzales, Calif.-based Taylor Fresh and Jard Marketing Corp., Lawrence, Mass.
“It is pretty clear-cut,” Pollock said. “We know everything down to the pallet and the case.”
Pollock said timing is a key issue for FDA. As soon as it finds a problem with a particular lot, the agency must notify the supply chain immediately.
“Anything before (the product) gets out to the general public would be beneficial,” he said.