Nomination hearing for Scott Gottlieb to head FDA Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Food & Drug Administration commissioner-designate Scott Gottlieb testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee hearing on April 5, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Finally, FDA will begin to name names in recalls

More information related to foodborne illness outbreaks to be made available to the public.

Food & Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced Sept. 26 that the agency is gathering comments on its recommendations for listing retail consignees when a food recall is ongoing.

The draft recommendations are contained in a document titled: “Public Availability of Lists of Retail Consignees to Effectuate Certain Human and Animal Food Recalls; Guidance for Industry and FDA Staff.” The nine page document can be found at: https://www.fda.gov/downloads/Safety/Recalls/IndustryGuidance/ucm621668.pdf

There are a few caveats in the document, such as this will apply only to Class I recalls. Class I implies that death or permanent damage may occur with ingestion. Class II is defined by FDA as applying to foodborne illnesses that are reversible and death is only remotely likely to occur.

It also points out quite clearly that the lists will contain the names of retailers only as they are known to FDA and that the lists will likely be incomplete. Consumers will be advised to still look closely at lot numbers and production dates (like how many do that now).

It says “finally” in the title because the Food Safety & Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture started naming names 10 years ago in 2008. At the time, they were dealing mostly with raw meat and poultry products more likely to have already been consumed before the retail outlets were known.

Ready-to-eat meat and poultry products contaminated with Listeria are another story of course.

But FDA regulates canned products, pet foods, frozen dinner entrees, milk, dairy and eggs; much of which could be on the shelves or in the refrigerator much longer than fresh ground beef.

For those naysayers, and there are plenty posting blogs on the subject, that say these listings have little or no impact, I only have to think back to the recent large Cargill ground beef recall that involved the Ft. Morgan facility just down the road from us.

We had some frozen ground beef in the freezer. A review of FSIS’s list of retailers did not name the supermarket where we buy our meat. Case closed.

When I was the chief medical officer for the State of Nebraska we were notified by FSIS of a large, fresh ground beef recall that would be occurring shortly in the state of roughly 1.6 million citizens. They would not tell me if the recall affected any particular region of the state, and certainly would not tell me the retail outlets.

We had 18 public health departments representing all 93 counties and every single one of those 1.6 million residents who wanted desperately to go on the evening news, on the call-in local radio talk shows or front page of the local newspaper advising their constituents where the beef was sold and what they should do about it.

Even if they had already consumed the beef, they could be made aware of early warning signs of a foodborne illness and the need for immediate health care if even slightly affected.

I swore I would do my best to get that way of thinking changed if at all possible.

It took all of the three years that I was in Washington, D.C., but thanks to a major Northeast grocery chain setting a precedent by calling all their customers who they knew had bought a subsequently recalled product, and thanks to being stuck one stormy night at Andrews Air Force base waiting for a flight to Belgium with a top ranking official from the Office of Management & Budget, commonsense prevailed.

FDA has been claiming “confidentiality between the supplier and retailer” but has evidently “finally” decided the life and health of a child is far more important than the bottom line of a major retailer selling shares of stock on Wall Street. 

In another on-line trade journal, Meatingplace.com, blogger Shawn Stevens said this: “Time will tell whether the change in policy serves to increase the effectiveness of recalls or reduce the occurrence of illness. Theoretically, most would agree that it is generally preferable to give consumers as much accurate and relevant information concerning a recalled product as possible (especially in cases where foodborne illness is involved). With that said, in practice, providing additional information could actually prove to be problematic or counterproductive if the information being provided is in any way inaccurate or incomplete.”

So you get a sense of skepticism?

Stevens is a principal of Food Industry Council LLC and represents the food industry, not victims of foodborne illnesses.

And speaking of “information being… incomplete” I want to give a shout out to the Centers of Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) which has announced a new policy to help alert citizens to possible dangerous situations, including foodborne illness outbreaks, before their investigation is complete.

They are calling this new messaging “Food Safety Alert.”

The CDC has a long history of moving methodically and slowly in investigating possible foodborne illnesses, and providing lengthy, detail reports long after the fact.

I could provide many examples of where I know this early, “incomplete” information could have prevented much suffering and saved lives.

Kudos to both the FDA and CDC for taking a long, hard look at very old policies and bringing them into another world dedicated to protecting you and me.

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