Sunday, September 19, 2010

Total Recall: Food Safety Hysteria Gives Rise To Unnecessary Demands.

People are upset about a food safety bill that is currently stalled in the Senate.  The bill mandates regular inspections of food plants, which I also support.  But one of the strange things to come out of the recent salmonella outbreak and this bill stalling, is people's continued claim that the FDA is powerless to do any enforcement.

The New York Times ran a story about the bill and mentioned the egg recall, stating the following:

"...the F.D.A. never inspected the Iowa egg facilities at the center of the recalls. Even if it had, the agency would not have had the power to order that their eggs be recalled despite conditions it later found to be filthy."

I find this to be very misleading.  First off, the FDA absolutely has the power to order the eggs be recalled.  There are two things here.  Number one, the FDA can ask the company to institute a recall and as soon as they do, the FDA assists them and provides guidance to ensure the proper steps are being taken.  Yes, all recalls are voluntary, but I will challenge anyone reading this to find instances where a food company refused to issue a recall.  That brings me to number two and the reason why recall requests are always granted - seizure.

Under 21 U.S.C. 334 the FDA has the authority to seize food it believes to be contaminated or adulterated in some way.  Food companies absolutely do not want this to happen... ever.  Just on a P.R. level, any company would much rather look like they caught a mistake and are trying to make it right by recalling the adulterated product.  This is where the New York Times' story is so misleading.  No food company in their right mind, or with credible evidence that proves they are being unfairly treated, would ever risk an FDA seizure.  Under a recall, the FDA helps.  Under a seizure, the FDA takes over, in some instances keeping you from running production by clotting your supply lines and warehouse storage.  A seizure is like a crazy cat lady having her cats taken away because they're emaciated/diseased/abused... it's an indictment on the party involved.  Some companies didn't survive massive recalls because of the negative impact it had on their sales.  Under a seizure, you give up all ability to say you are trying to make thing's right.  This is why the New York Times article is so intellectually dishonest.

The power to demand a recall is unnecessary and in my opinion, does more harm than good.  Even to good facilities, bad things can happen.  A worker can fail to notify their supervisor they are ill and work their shift, contaminating food.  Temperature anomalies can occur in between regular temperature checks, preventing some of the product from reaching a proper kill temp for bacteria.  A packaging employee may grab a spindle of identical looking labels that don't have the allergen statement.  The voluntary recall gives the company a chance to own the problem and make it right.  Believe it or not, most people do give a damn about their jobs and the safety of their products.  A seizure is a last resort action meant to stop a rogue company from harming the public.  By harming a business that just made a careless mistake, you potentially put thousands of people out of work.

What I want to see happen...

The FDA has roughly 51,229 facilities to inspect but inspected fewer than 1,000 in 2008.  This is a big problem and this is the reason:

We simply need more Consumer Safety Officers, the boots on the ground that actually go to these facilities and carry out the inspections.  Specialists are the people that are technical writers, researchers, and food microbiologists that process samples.

We need to have close to 5,000 inspectors, but until recently, the FDA had been underfunded.  This is the biggest problem.  The next big problem that must be tackled is the hiring process. 

On there are no entry level Consumer Safety Officer positions to apply for.  None.  There are only GS-7 Through GS-13, which are PhD's and upper management positions, on up to director level.  The USDA's Food Safety & Inspection Service, which inspects meat facilities, does have a GS-5 entry level Food Inspector position open, but this leads me to the next part of the problem.  The process for getting hired involves filling out a lengthy application and meeting certain educational requirements, which is understandable for a government position.  They also take at least 6 - 8 weeks after the posted job's closing date to get back to the candidates that applied.  This position's closing date?  01/31/2011  You won't even know if you made it to the first round of phone interviews nearly 6 months.  What food safety/food science talent(myself, for example) can afford to wait that long just to start the interview process?

So we need more people and the speed at which we hire those people needs to increase exponentially.  Notice that my solutions didn't involve any new laws other than requiring timely inspections.  It isn't the laws that are flawed, it's the execution.

The truth is, instances of food borne illnesses have been decreasing since the end of the last century.  That doesn't mean we can't do way better, but it does mean there is a fair amount of hysteria out there.  Hopefully, someone with the USDA and FDA addresses these human resource issues.  If so, I'll be the first to apply.


  1. Any idea what's up with this part of the regs?

    Voluntary Reconditioning

    Voluntary destruction of violative lots before seizure should be encouraged; but under no circumstances should FDA witness the voluntary reconditioning of unfit goods, regardless of the nature of the violation or the size of the lot.

  2. It's talking about rework...

    They don't want the product re-used. Some violations and recalls are pretty innocent, such as undeclared allergens, where they used the wrong label. However, you wouldn't want to use a tainted product in an untainted product. Sounds like they were trying to anticipate loopholes.


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