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The FDA sure is in hot water over how it handles food recalls

Dara T. Mathis is a writing wife and mama newly based in the DC area. Her first language is Southern food. She tweets for the love of biscuits @dtafakari.

Uh-oh, FDA, we thought it was your job to protect us, not food companies

We don't want to alarm anyone, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General recently released some concerning information about the Food and Drug Administration. Its audit revealed that the FDA "does not have an efficient and effective food recall initiation process." In other words, it's jumping on food recalls way too slowly.

More: Why all those huge food recalls are actually good news

Here's some of what the OIG found: 
  • In 2014, 165 days passed between the day the FDA conducted a test of a facility's contaminated nut butter and the day the company issued a voluntary recall. At least 14 people became ill with a salmonella strain related to the nut butter.
  • In another 2014 case, it took 81 days to issue a voluntary recall after the FDA's testing of a facility's cheese product revealed a listeria contamination. Nine people became sick due to the listeria, including an infant who passed away. The Centers for Disease Control also connected two fetal deaths to the product.

In a response on its blog, the FDA pointed some of the blame at food companies. Officials said the agency uses the powers granted by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act to force mandatory recalls of contaminated food when necessary. But the problem is not that the FDA failed to notify the companies within guidelines. It's that the companies delayed taking action.

The FDA did agree that allowing months to elapse before removing bad food from the public is unacceptable. It assures the public that it will follow the OIG's recommendations to revise its procedures for voluntary recall.

More: Tips to avoid contaminated fruits, vegetables and meats

As far as I'm concerned, as a mom and a person who eats food, the OIG audit shows that the FDA is more like a watchdog who sees an intruder break in, barks once and then happily goes back to sleep. A consumer protection administration is only as strong as its teeth, and the FDA clearly isn't using theirs. In most cases, companies quickly and voluntarily issue a recall after the FDA identifies a contaminated product. That's a relief. But what about the ones that don't? The delayed response can literally mean the difference between life and death for American consumers.

It is not enough for the FDA to consider its job done after politely requesting action rather than forcing it. The agency defensively maintains that it still must take the time to test samples to determine how much of a product should be recalled. In other words, the scientific process can't be rushed, or the agency risks leaving contaminated product on shelves.

Consumers aren't trying to make the FDA jump the gun on recalls. We just don't want to eat bad cheese for three months. Now that the FDA is aware of the problem, however, it has pledged to expedite its plans to set rules and time frames for recalls. The agency should definitely use the power of the FSMA to issue stronger mandates for recall. We certainly hope it does.

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