updated 10/13/2006 5:57:12 PM ET 2006-10-13T21:57:12

A warning system meant to alert food companies in the event of a food poisoning outbreak failed one-third of the time in a recent government test.

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The Food and Drug Administration was able to reach an emergency contact for a food facility in every two out of three cases.

Developed in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the system is supposed to help the government track the source of an outbreak of foodborne illness and help notify companies that might be affected.

"As a result of this test, FDA believes that it is imperative that immediate steps be taken by FDA and owners, operators and agents in charge of domestic and foreign registered facilities to improve the accuracy of the information in the Food Facility Registration Database," the agency said.

FDA posted a summary of the test on its Web site on Thursday.

As of mid-September, 298,236 facilities had registered with FDA, 126,399 of them in the U.S. There were 800 facilities in the test, half of them in the U.S.

In the test, conducted from July 10 to Aug. 2, the agency got responses from or talked with emergency contacts who were registered by facilities about 66 percent of the time. The rate was 72 percent for U.S. facilities and 59 percent for foreign facilities.

But FDA reached the right emergency contact only 55 percent of the time. The rate was 61 percent in U.S. facilities and 48 percent in foreign facilities.

Also in the test:

  • People told FDA they were not emergency contacts at 10 percent of U.S. facilities and 11 percent of foreign facilities.
  • FDA couldn't be sure they had reached emergency contacts because people didn't speak English in 1 percent of U.S. facilities and 9 percent of foreign facilities.
  • There was no response to messages FDA left with 18 percent of U.S. facilities and 20 percent of foreign facilities.

FDA was required to keep an up-to-date list of food facilities and emergency contacts in the 2002 Bioterrorism Act.

Not all food companies are included in the database; FDA does not have authority over meat, poultry or eggs. Those plants are regulated by the Agriculture Department, which does daily inspections of all 6,000 plants and has inspectors permanently assigned to plants.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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