HHS inspector general report illustrates more needs to be done on food safety, transparency
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On Tuesday, the HHS Inspector General’s office released a report that raises serious concerns about how well the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) protects Americans from unsafe food products. Product recalls save lives. They alert consumers who may have purchased a contaminated food not to eat it or feed it to their families, and in some cases, to seek appropriate medical attention. Yet in a review of the voluntary food recalls reported to FDA between 2012 and 2015, the Inspector General found that the agency took as long as ten months in some cases to make sure unsafe products had come off shelves. The initial findings were bad enough to lead the Inspector General to take the extraordinary step of issuing an “early alert” in June 2016.

Fortunately, FDA has taken some important steps to protect consumers since that early alert. It has created a team of senior FDA officials—dubbed the Strategic Coordinated Oversight of Recall Execution or “SCORE”—that has enabled the agency to respond in a more timely fashion to companies that drag their feet, and to pursue enforcement actions where appropriate. FDA can and should do more, however, starting with the information that the agency provides to consumers.

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FDA regulates around 80 percent of food products on the U.S. market. Most of the other 20 percent are meat, poultry and egg products that fall under the jurisdiction the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Inexplicably, the policy at FDA and FSIS on what information companies must provide in the event of a recall diverges significantly.

Since 2008, FSIS has required companies to disclose the names and locations of the retailers that sold recalled products, which FSIS then posts on its website. By contrast, when an FDA-regulated product is recalled, consumers often have no way of knowing whether the products were sold at a store or restaurant they frequent, or even in their region of the country. FDA claims that it cannot tell consumers more because it must protect companies’ “confidential commercial information.” But the longstanding FSIS policy flatly contradicts that rationale.

What’s more, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act independently authorizes the FDA to release information about where a recalled product is sold. The 2011 law directs the agency to determine what information is “necessary to enable a consumer to accurately identify whether such consumer is in possession” of a recalled food product, and to publish that information “on the Internet website of the Food and Drug Administration.” The names and locations of retailers of recalled products are absolutely “necessary to enable a consumer” to take action that would protect themselves and their families in response to a recall.

Consider hepatitis A. Someone who consumes a product contaminated with the virus has a window of just two weeks in which a vaccine can effectively protect against illness. Yet last year, when FDA posted information about a recall of contaminated frozen strawberries from Egypt, it provided no information about where the berries were sold. Had it done so, news media and public health authorities could have used the information to create a broader awareness of the recall, which likely would have lowered the ultimate number of victims.

A more transparent food system is a safer food system. Food companies are understandably wary of consumers associating their products with recalls, but giving consumers more actionable information on recalls is a cheap, effective way to prevent foodborne illness and protect public health. As FDA continues to reform its food recall process, it will face many tough decisions, but whether to disclose the names and locations of retailers that sold recalled foods is not one of them.

Thomas Gremillion is director of Food Policy Institute, Consumer Federation of America.