food safety

Can Consumers Have Confidence in FDA Foodborne Illness Protection?

Recent outbreaks in food-borne illnesses have many questioning the public’s ability to have confidence in federal food safety procedures and practices. Salmonella infected mangoes and jars of peanut butter, listeria tainted spinach and ground beef with the very serious E. Coli bacteria have all made the national news this year.

foodThere are several federal agencies, which sometimes work together, to provide protection for the food supply in the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates meat, poultry and eggs, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), which is charged with ensuring the safety of all other consumer products and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which leads the efforts regarding food-borne illnesses and outbreaks.

The issue may be the differing stances on public release of information that is held by each agency. The USDA policy is to release the names of retail stores that have received a recalled or infected product for sale. The USDA readily notifies consumers of which stores are selling the product in order to reign in the potential public health threat as soon as possible.

The FDA, on the other hand, chooses a more conservative approach. “FDA treats retail distribution as proprietary information and leaves it up to the company, during a recall, to release that information,” said Phyllis Entis, a food safety microbiologist. “This is one of the things that can extend the duration of an outbreak.”

Both the FDA and the CDC state that information is released only when it serves the public health interest. The FDA holds a stricter definition of public health interest, which could be related to the number of products and retailers of the products that it is charged with overseeing.

FDA Food Recall Procedures Called into Question

Earlier this year, the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report calling into question the FDA food recall procedures. The GAO recommended to the agency “a comprehensive food recall communication policy and related implementation plans” be developed in order to better ensure the public safety.

The GAO is a general government oversight agency that is charged with making sure agencies are performing their duties, spending their budgets appropriately and looking for any potential red flags that could indicate a looming public crisis.

The FDA has undertaken recommendations put forth by the GAO. Several agencies and consumer watch groups will be monitoring for signs of progress in protecting the public from deadly food-borne illness outbreaks.