Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ten Steps To A Safer Food Supply: Part One

"Protecting the safety of our food and drugs is one of the most fundamental responsibilities government has, and . . . it is a responsibility that I intend to uphold in the months and years to come."

Eighteen months after President Obama made this commitment, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the death of the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510).

S.510 incubated in the Senate for more than a year, taking a back seat to health care reform, financial system reform, and stimulus packages. While it languished, the US food industry logged 85 safety recalls – most of them due to contamination by Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes. Nine of the recalls were linked to 1,850 reported illnesses (data supplied by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the consumer Federation of America).

The time for wringing our collective hands over the sorry state of the US food safety system is past. It is time to act. Here's what I propose:

Step 1. Establish an on-line clearing house where consumers can report food safety problems
Consumers are the first to suffer the consequences of unsafe food. When an individual has a problem with a food, he or she should not have to figure out who has jurisdiction over that specific item. We need a single on-line consumer complaint portal. Any consumer should be able to access and complete a fill-in form detailing the food safety issue, and be confident that the complaint will be directed automatically to the appropriate federal, state or local agency for follow-up.

The portal also will serve as a means of tracking trends in food safety complaints, and help FDA and USDA to evaluate high risk foods and food processors for priority investigation. In addition, consumers would be able to flag instances of recalled foods that remain on store shelves in their areas.

The complaint portal must be widely publicized. Any organization with an interest in food safety – news outlets, consumer groups, state and local governments – would be encouraged to maintain a live link to the complaint portal on their web sites.

Step 2. Initiate full disclosure of retail distribution for all Class 1 (high risk) food recalls.
Last month, California – a state deeply mired in debt – published a list of all retailers, restaurants, nursing facilities and food service operations that were supplied with recalled eggs. The list, which was last updated September 14th, is 198 pages long. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service publishes a distribution list for all Class 1 recalls, but excludes restaurants, food service operations and other facilities that serve food rather than sell retail packages. FDA does nothing to tell consumers where recalled food was sold, except for providing a list of states.

FDA and USDA should immediately implement a full retail distribution disclosure policy for all Class 1 recalls. This does not require any new legislation. There is no valid excuse to withhold this information from the public.

In addition to full public disclosure, FDA and USDA should seek the authority to require that public recall notices be posted by any retailer, restaurateur or food service operator who was supplied with a recalled product. The notices should be posted prominently adjacent to the shelf or refrigerated/freezer case where the product had been displayed (in a store or cafeteria), and also posted at the entrance to each establishment.

Step 3. Disclose the contents of all food facility inspection reports
FDA discloses the contents of its "483" food facility inspection reports when the agency judges that there is sufficient interest to warrant the disclosure. Other reports only are released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Such requests must be made in writing (no email requests allowed), may take months to process, and must be paid for by the individual or organization that makes the request. USDA does not release any inspection reports, except in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

FDA and USDA should both implement full disclosure of all inspection reports (redacted to remove commercial proprietary information, as FDA now does). The public has the right – and the need – to know which companies are doing their best to produce safe food, and which ones are just scraping by.

Please watch for Part Two of this series, where we'll take a few more steps down the road to safer food.

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