Registry needs clearer guidelines

09/11/2009 02:17:44 PM
The Packer Editorial Board

Taken at face value, the Food and Drug Administration’s Reportable Food Registry, a Web-based program launched Sept. 8, seems like a straightforward tool to put companies on notice that negligent food safety practices will not be tolerated.

In a nutshell, the FDA now mandates food handlers/processors/shippers and others in the supply chain to notify the agency within 24 hours of uncovering a “reasonable probability” their food will cause severe health problems or death to humans or animals.

The enforcement notice comes after this year’s salmonella outbreak, traced to a company whose management knew it was shipping tainted peanut products. The new 24-hour mandate appears to be a no-brainer — quick action is warranted when tainted products are in the supply chain.

Despite numerous pathogen-related recalls in recent years of fresh fruit and vegetables — including spinach, chili peppers and cantaloupe — none of those shippers was found to have knowingly distributed tainted foods.

Even so, the FDA’s “reasonable probability” leaves growers and shippers with many questions. Are companies that don’t have stringent testing free from the new registry requirements? Can companies wait for a second test before registering, to ensure no “false-positives” result in expensive recalls? Beyond reporting a potential problem, what other steps are companies obligated to do if they’ve shipped tainted food?

Speculation has already started on a possible unintended consequence — companies covered by this law can skirt the issue by changing or stopping tests for E. coli or salmonella.

By no means is the Reportable Food Registry faulty. The FDA, however, should spell out what would trigger a company’s responsibility to use the registry.

In the meantime, the FDA should give all food industries a breaking-in period, in the spirit of the six-month training the U.S. Department of Agriculture established for country-of-origin labeling enforcement.

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