GAO says USDA, FDA should improve food recalls

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Oct 21, 2004 (CIDRAP News) – The Government Accountability Office (GAO) asserted this week that weaknesses in the government's systems for handling food recalls increase the risk that consumers will buy and eat unsafe food.

The GAO, an investigative agency of Congress, analyzed 10 recalls monitored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and 10 monitored by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2003. The agency found that about 38% and 36% of recalled food was eventually recovered in the recalls overseen by the USDA and FDA, respectively.

"USDA and FDA do not know how promptly and completely the recalling companies and their distributors and other customers are carrying out recalls, and neither agency is using its data systems to effectively track and manage its recall programs," the GAO report says.

The report recommends that Congress consider requiring food companies to notify the government of potentially unsafe food and giving the USDA and FDA authority to require recalls. The agencies currently lack that authority, except that the FDA can require recalls of infant formula.

The report was prepared at the request of two Democratic legislators, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio. The USDA generally agreed with the report and said it had already addressed most of the problems cited, but the FDA disagreed with some of the main conclusions.

The GAO says the amount of food recalled by US companies has increased substantially in recent years. For meat and poultry, the volume grew from about 6 million pounds in 1988 to 36 million pounds in 2003. Firms normally conduct voluntary recalls when they discover they may have sold contaminated food or food that contains unlisted allergens, but the GAO says the federal agencies do not know how well the recalls are carried out.

The USDA and FDA don't give companies specific guidance on how quickly to carry out recalls, and therefore they may be less motivated to notify customers and pull food from the marketplace, the report asserts.

Further, the agencies "do not track important dates to calculate how long companies take to carry out recalls and the percentage of food that is recovered," the GAO says. Nor do the agencies "promptly verify that recalls have reached all segments of the distribution chain." The GAO found that the USDA took an average of 38 days and the FDA took an average of 31 days to finish recall verification checks in 2003—longer than the expected shelf life for some of the foods recalled.

However, last May the USDA established time frames for completing verification checks and methods for reaching all segments of the distribution chain, the report notes. If implemented, the new procedures should help ensure that recalls are effective, it says.

The GAO also says the methods the two agencies use to notify consumers of recalls—press releases and Web postings—may not be effective. Consumer groups consulted by the GAO said relatively few consumers may see that information. They suggested that the agencies try additional steps, such as posting recall notices in grocery stores and using "shoppers' club" information.

The report notes that the federal government has mandatory recall authority over other products, including motor vehicles, general consumer goods, vaccines, and medical devices. Besides urging consideration of recall authority over food, the GAO recommends that USDA and FDA "better track and manage food recalls, achieve more prompt and complete recalls, and determine if additional ways are needed to alert consumers about recalled food they have in their homes."

In commenting on a draft of the GAO report, the USDA said it was generally accurate and that the procedures adopted in May would correct most of the problems cited. But the agency said the GAO's recommendations about collecting more data and generating more reports would be burdensome to the agency and to industry, according to the report.

The FDA, after reviewing a draft, rejected the assertion that weaknesses in FDA procedures slowed recalls and limited the amount of food recovered, the document says. The FDA also dissented from the recommendation for giving food companies specific time frames and for recording the dates of company and FDA actions.

One of the report's appendices describes the USDA's oversight of the beef recall that followed the discovery of the nation's first cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Washington state in December 2003. It says the USDA was unable to determine how much of the 10,410 pounds of beef in the original recall was actually recovered. USDA officials said processors mixed the potentially contaminated meat with other meat for a total of 38,000 pounds of beef that was distributed "at the secondary customer level," according to the report.

This meat was mixed with still other meat before it reached retail shelves, so the precise amount of potentially contaminated meat that was sold is unknown, the report says. Customers ultimately returned or destroyed 64,000 pounds of beef as a result of the recall, but it was not possible to determine how much of the original 10,410 pounds was included in that amount, the GAO says.

Eating meat products from BSE-infected cattle is believed to be the cause of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. But when the BSE case was discovered, officials said the organs most likely to harbor the BSE agent, such as the brain, spinal cord, and distal small intestine, had been removed from the carcass and did not enter the human food supply.

See also:

GAO report, "Food safety: USDA and FDA need to better ensure prompt and complete recalls of potentially unsafe food"
http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d0551.pdf

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