The Food and Drug Administration often moves too slowly on food recalls, letting companies take their time in recalling contaminated food and leaving the public uninformed and in danger, a government report found Thursday.
For example, it took the maker of Hispanic-style cheese more than two months to recall listeria-contaminated products, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Health and Human Services Department found. One baby died and two women miscarried because of listeria infections caused by that contaminated cheese.
"In a recall involving nut butter, at least 14 people became ill with a strain of Salmonella indistinguishable from or linked to the strain found at the firm's manufacturing facility," the OIG said in its report.
It said more than five months passed from the date FDA identified the potentially adulterated product before the company responsible started a recall.
"Our ongoing audit of FDA's food recall program found that FDA did not have an efficient and effective food recall initiation process that helps ensure the safety of the nation's food supply," the report reads.
"Specifically, FDA did not have policies and procedures to ensure that firms or responsible parties initiated voluntary food recalls promptly. As a result, consumers remained at risk of illness or death for several weeks after FDA was aware of a potentially hazardous food in the supply chain."
Consumer groups have often criticized the FDA, saying they think the agency is far too cozy with the companies it regulates. The FDA says it's far better to get companies to trust it and cooperate.
"FDA should take very seriously this alert from the Inspector General," said Sandra Eskin, director of food safety at The Pew Charitable Trusts. The agency needs to move more quickly and efficiently with recalls to minimize preventable foodborne illnesses."
The OIG report says FDA needs to be firmer when it comes to food recalls.
"We suggest that FDA update its policies and procedures to instruct its recall staff to establish set timeframes for FDA to request that firms voluntarily recall their products and firms to initiate voluntary food recalls," it said.
The OIG looked at 30 food recalls between 2012 and 2015. "For all 30 voluntary recalls in our sample, after FDA first became aware that an adulterated or misbranded product could be in the food supply chain, it did not prescribe a timeline for each firm to initiate a recall," the OIG said.
The FDA says a timeline will not necessarily help.
"The FDA's actions have to be based in science and we go where the evidence leads us," Dr. Stephen Ostroff, FDA's Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine and Howard Sklamberg, Deputy Commissioner for Global Regulatory Operations and Policy, wrote in a blog post that went up at the same time as the OIG report.
"The scope of a contamination must be ascertained to determine how much of a product must be recalled. The time needed to collect evidence can vary, but to request a recall without evidence risks recalling the wrong product and leaving consumers vulnerable to contaminated food that is still on the market."
FDA says it is already trying to strengthen its food poisoning outbreak responses.It's set up a new team of senior officials to oversee recalls and says it's using advanced gene-sequencing technology to help better identify the sources of food poisoning outbreaks.
"This technique has already proven to be a game-changer in outbreak response, and will be increasingly valuable in the future," Ostroff and Sklamberg wrote.
"Because the vast majority of companies choose a voluntary recall when presented with science-based evidence that their products are unsafe, or reasonably likely to be unsafe, the FDA has only rarely needed to use its mandatory recall authority."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year 48 million people are made sick by a foodborne illness. Of those, 128,000 are sick enough to be hospitalized, and 3,000 die.