(Sept. 27) Despite agriculture’s best efforts to protect its products, recent recalls of baby carrots, spinach and bagged salads have kept consumers and government regulators on edge to the point where the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may seek more stringent food safety enforcement authority.
The fresh produce industry and Washington are seeking a consistent national food safety standard, but at this point the FDA has little enforcement authority when it comes to heading off contamination or recalls.
The House Agriculture Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Sept. 26 addressed the issue. David Acheson, the FDA’s assistant commissioner of food production, said the agency needs to be more proactive to prevent contamination through an inspection system that would provide a faster response.
The lack of an inspection system sets U.S. food safety procedures a world apart from that of Canada, its largest trading partner with more than $533.7 billion in goods in 2006, according to a Congressional Research Service report to Congress.
DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO FOOD SAFETY
Under its present guidelines, the FDA has little enforcement authority during recalls, whereas the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has legislative authority to fine companies and even jail their principals.
The FDA does not generally have the authority to order a recall. What legal action the FDA can take is limited to seizure of product, injunction of the firm and a court request to recall the product.
Canada is more prone to take the carrot and stick approach, first working with a company to discover the extent of contamination and illnesses, then warning consumers and setting in motion a voluntary recall.
“If we get a refusal to do a recall we have legislation authority under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Act where we can order a mandatory recall,” said Garfield Balsom, a food safety recall specialist with CFIA’s Food Recall and Emergency Response department. “We can go to the minister of agriculture and get a recall order that becomes an enforceable order punishable by a $50,000 fine and jail terms if the order is not adhered to.”
Balsom said the recall order would not be served on the foreign supplier or manufacturer, but against the Canadian-based agent selling or distributing the product. In the case of the recent recall involving Dole bagged lettuce, Loblaws, the retail store that sold the product in which a single bag was found to be contaminated with E. coli, was informed of the finding. It was then up to Loblaws to inform its distributor and supplier, Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc., Monterey, Calif.
The major point that differentiates U.S. and Canadian detection and enforcement capabilities is a government-controlled random sampling program of fruits and vegetables.
The FDA puts this burden on manufacturers or waits to be informed by local health officials that people are getting sick and there appears to be a common food source, such as what happened during the E. coli outbreak involving fresh spinach in 2006.
CFIA, on the other hand, routinely conducts random sampling throughout Canada. Balsom said random sampling is just one of the “triggers” that sets in motion an investigation and a potential recall.
“There can be a consumer complaint against a product or we could get a referral from another government department,” he said. “The investigation would entail the product lot codes, sampling information, illness reports and the epidemiological investigation into any outbreak.”
Once the investigation is completed, he said, CFIA would seek a health risk assessment in conjunction with Health Canada, the agency responsible for setting standards on food and drug safety. After CFIA received the assessment it would contact the “owner of the product,” the retailer or distributor in Canada, to set in motion a public advisory and a joint press release with the company announcing a voluntary recall.
Through memorandums of understandings with various countries, CFIA then notifies the FDA or other appropriate country agencies where the product is also available to consumers.
Under its present recall policies, FDA only monitors company recalls and assess their actions. After a recall it may send investigators to make sure the product has been disposed of properly and examine facility sanitary conditions, as it did during the most recent recall involving Dole’s facility in Springfield, Ohio.
The surge of investigative activity during the E. coli outbreak last year was an aberration because the agency is primarily set up to examine written reports rather than conducting field investigations, because of personnel cutbacks over the last decade.
The FDA and CFIA do not issue news releases to notify the public when the danger of eating the implicated products has passed. That responsibility, Balsom said, is the company’s.