Food recalls are a vital mechanism in preserving the health of citizens across the country. Even with modern advances in technology and food safety, foodborne illnesses still happen, and they can even lead to widespread outbreaks if not kept in check. However, a new report out of the Government Accountability Office demonstrates that we might still have a ways to go before recall procedures are without error.
The GAO, acting on the behest of Congress through the recently passed FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, set about ensuring that food recalls are being conducted in the safest, most expedient way possible, and that there are methods of recourse in place should there be an erroneous recall of a product that adversely affects a company’s bottom line. Specifically, the GAO sought to study the agencies capable of issuing a recall, with particular emphasis placed on the FDA. They attempted to identify potential hurdles the FDA faces as well as how they plan on overcoming those deterrents. The GAO also sought to figure out what mechanisms could reimburse a food producer should a recall turn out to be mistakenly issued.
One of the biggest problem areas identified by the GAO is deficiencies in the FDA’s communications procedures. Namely, there must be an emphasis placed on balancing technical accuracy with the timely dispersement of relevant information, and more of an effort must be made to promote coordination between agencies.
Thus far, the FDA has apparently not been fully successful in addressing these issues, although they have taken steps in the right direction. The Advisory Committee on Risk Communication recommended development of a policy that would serve to improve upon communications issues, but that recommendation has yet to be heeded. Similarly, the FDA has also yet to deal with coordination issues as recommended by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, and they have not worked with the Department of Agriculture to determine if further measures to disperse recall information to consumers should be enacted.
One of the biggest deficiencies rests in the government’s ability to provide a food producer with recompense should a food recall turn out to be a false alarm. The simple fact is that no such mechanism exists. Having such a safety valve would instill confidence in members of the food industry, but the problem is that tough economic times might make the costs of such a mechanism unfeasible.
In the end, the GAO asks the FDA to clarify how they’re going to come up with solutions to many of the above mentioned problems, and asks them to consider recommendations made by various advisory committees. The FDA did not give any indication if they would heed the GAO’s suggestions, instead pointing to continued efforts to improve their methods.