USDA hears suggestions for improving product recall procedures

Dec 27, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) heard various suggestions for improving its product recall procedures at a recent meeting, but there was no great push to give the USDA authority to order recalls of contaminated foods, according to a Minnesota official who attended.

Consumer groups represented at the meeting said the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) should have mandatory recall authority, but others attending thought the existing voluntary system works reasonably well, said Shirley Bohm, director of the dairy and food inspection division in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The FSIS regulates meat, poultry, and eggs.

"People could come up with only one instance where a company didn't voluntarily issue a press release to publicize that there was a recall going on," Bohm told CIDRAP News. "So people felt that seems to be working pretty well. If industry doesn't want to do the notification, the agency can do it, and that accomplishes the same thing. Usually the firm wants to do the notification."

The public meeting to discuss FSIS's recall process was held Dec 12 in Washington, DC. The agency heard from federal and state officials and industry representatives as well as consumer groups. The session, one of a series of FSIS meetings on food safety and public health, came near the end of a year that has seen several large recalls of beef and poultry in connection with outbreaks of Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Listeria monocytogenes infections.

"FSIS seems to be receptive to improving and changing the recall process," said Bohm, who is president of the Association of Food and Drug Officials, a group of mostly state officials involved with public health and consumer protection. "That was the whole concept of the meeting, to share information about how they manage their process and compare theirs with other federal agencies who do recalls."

FSIS spokesman Matthew Baun said the agency is considering whether changes in the recall process would help ensure the fastest possible removal of tainted products from stores and notification of the public. He said there is no timeline for work on the issue. "This was just a meeting to gather information and to lay the groundwork for possible changes in the future," he said.

Bohm noted that the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which was represented at the meeting, can order recalls, unlike USDA and the Food and Drug Administration. The latter two agencies "can put a product on hold, they can seize it, but they don't have mandatory recall authority," she said. The CPSC can ban a product and can require a manufacturer to report a hazardous product, powers that FSIS and FDA lack, she added.

CPSC officials at the meeting suggested that the FSIS use more than news releases and press conferences to warn the public of potentially harmful products, according to Bohm. "CPSC uses a lot of ways to get their information out, based on what the information is," she said. "There were recommendations that FSIS do the same kind of thing." For example, the agency could put up signs at supermarket meat cases or, in the case of a Listeria problem, ask gynecologists to help warn pregnant women.

Another suggestion was that the FSIS increase its use of epidemiologic evidence of contamination (the apparent association of illness with eating a certain food) in its decisions on recalls, rather than relying solely or mostly on laboratory-confirmed findings of contamination, Bohm reported. She believes the agency has already begun doing that: "I think FSIS was commended for using a science-based policy which includes accepting epidemiologic evidence in their decision-making process. It appears they've already begun that transition, from accepting only lab-confirmed results toward using epidemiology, in the last maybe 2 years. . . . Possibly, they would ask for a recall now without the lab confirmation if the epidemiologic evidence is strong."

In fact, Bohn said the growing use of epidemiologic evidence is one of several improvements she has seen in the FSIS recall process in the last few years. "They've also posted epidemiologic veterinarians in each of their districts around the country, which adds a new dimension to the recall process. That also enables them to work more closely with state departments of agriculture and health, which do the investigations of an outbreak, and that's really beneficial." Also, the FSIS is now accepting lab findings from state agencies more readily than in the past, she added.

There were no surprises in the comments from consumer groups at the meeting, including the Consumer Federation of America and others, according to Bohm. "They were hoping that FSIS would take a very proactive role in informing the public [of recalls] as soon as possible. They were in support of mandatory recall authority," despite the inability of those present to cite more than one case of a firm refusing to recall a potentially tainted product.

Bohm said the Bush adminstration has made changes at the FSIS that have brought more public health experience to the agency. "They're more open to looking at making changes, but change always moves fairly slowly," she said. "And FSIS is very careful about consulting with the industry as well, and you need to do that because you need their cooperation."

See also:

FSIS recall information

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