A wave of food recalls fuels drive for food safety reform

U.S.’s second-largest producer of pistachios, voluntarily recalled two million pounds of the nuts from its 2008 crop. The pistachios had gone to thirty-six companies, either for repackaging for sale or for use as ingredients in such products as ice cream or cake mix, said David Acheson, the FDA’s assistant commissioner for food safety. He said all thirty-six companies had been contacted. “It can be literally a needle in a haystack looking for salmonella…. The good news here is that Kraft did find it; they acted independently and initiated recalls and told us, and we simply followed it up, as we should,” Acheson said. “In many ways, this is how the food safety system is supposed to work…to protect instead of just react,” said George Strait of the FDA’s office of public affairs.

MacVean correctly notes that this will not calls for overhauling the food safety system. Among the changes under consideration in legislation before Congress are giving the FDA mandatory authority to recall products; requirements for food safety systems at companies to minimize the chance of contamination during production; increased inspections; more funding; and a better way to track products around the country. “The reality of the basic system at FDA is that there is no requirement for companies to have in place modern preventive controls,” said Mike Taylor, a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services and a former FDA official. “A lot of companies do it, and Kraft is one of the leaders. They’re doing the kinds of things you’d like the whole system to do.”

There also are calls to split up the FDA and establish a Food Safety Administration. That may be premature, Kathleen Sebelius, the nominee for Health and Human Services secretary, said at her confirmation hearing Wednesday. First, she said, the FDA should be restored “as a world-class regulatory agency.”

Consumer and industry groups support reform, and President Obama devoted a radio address to food safety and has convened a group to study the issue. In addition, a California bill by two Los Angeles Democrats, Assemblyman Mike Feuer and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, would require food processors in the state to have plans in place to prevent contamination and to respond quickly if it occurred.

The legislation would require periodic testing and that any positive result for a dangerous contaminant be reported within twenty-four hours. Feuer said he was not aware, and expected most consumers did not know, that testing and reporting results were not mandatory. “We shouldn’t be relying on a good actor to protect the health of an entire population,” he said Wednesday.