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FDA’s Puppet Master

Anyone trying to figure out who pulls FDA’s strings on retail distribution information policy for Class I recalls need look no farther than the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).

Every time a major food safety recall is announced, eFoodAlert receives questions from consumers who are trying to find out whether their favorite supermarket carried the recalled product. This was especially the case during the Jensen Farms cantaloupe recall, as not all of the recalled cantaloupes were individually labeled.

Two weeks ago, Harry Hamil (owner of Black Mountain Farmers Market and a regular eFoodAlert reader) took me to task over my rhetorical question “When is FDA going to wake up, put the health and safety of American consumers ahead of industry interests, and provide us all with timely and complete information?”

My specific complaint was over FDA’s refusal to release retail distribution information for Listeria monocytogenes-contaminated Jensen Farms cantaloupes. Harry challenged me to make three phone calls:

     1. To the White House, asking why USDA releases retail distribution lists while FDA does not;

     2. To the Western Growers Association, asking their position on release of this information; and

     3. To the Produce Marketing Association, asking their position of the release of retail distribution lists.

I followed up on Harry’s challenge by sending email requests to the Western Growers Association, the Produce Marketing Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, asking each of them for their position on the release of retail distribution lists for all Class I (highest hazard level) recalls. (I didn’t bother trying to contact the White House. My past efforts to do so have resulted in either no response or a “thank you for your interest” reply.)

The Produce Marketing Association never replied to my email, even though I made two attempts to contact them.

The Western Growers Association’s Senior Vice President, Hank Giclas, responded that “WG does not have a formal position on the question of identifying retailers who sold recalled product.”

Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) had this to say:

“During a recall consumers should focus their attention on the specifics of the recalled product itself (i.e., name, variety, size, lot code). In a FDA Class I recall, all of this info is made public. Releasing a public list of all the retailers where the recalled products were sold does not make sense from a food safety perspective. Any proposed list could change from week to week or even from day-to-day so if consumers were not constantly monitoring this list for any changes, they could inadvertently purchase the recalled product. Also, even if they were monitoring the list closely, the list might not necessarily be accurate. In addition, some shoppers might not be able to remember exactly where they purchased a particular item.”

This is what FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg had to say about releasing retail distribution information in her introductory statement during a media teleconference on September 28, 2011:

“[C]onsumers can inquire of their retailers where cantaloupe came from, and retailers are prepared to provide that information if they are not already providing it to you in their stores.”

And, in replying to a reporter’s question about releasing retail distribution information, Dr. Hamburg added,

“I think it’s a lot more accurate for the consumer to actually ask their retailer in terms of the ability to get that information out and, of course, when you put stuff on the web site, not everybody accesses it. So I think it is an important message that if people are uncertain to ask their retailer. That’s how they’ll get the most accurate and most direct information.”

Am I crazy, or is FDA allowing the Grocery Manufacturers Association dictate Agency policy on release of retail distribution lists?

I repeat the rhetorical question with which Harry Hamil took exception two weeks ago:

When is FDA going to wake up, put the health and safety of American consumers ahead of industry interests, and provide us all with timely and complete information?


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“FDA’s Puppet Master” was first posted by Phyllis Entis on her blog, eFoodAlert, on Nov. 4, 2011. Reposted with permission.

© Food Safety News
  • TP

    I love their response to your questions.
    The government reacts as if they have no experience in food applications.
    But wait; we would not vote people into office or allow elected officials to appoint people into food safety positions without field experience would we.
    “Just because I can drive a car{pass laws)does not mean I understand what makes the car run”. Just ask the people who have lost due to unsafe food.

  • Phyllis,
    Thanks for following through on this as you promised. We, your readers, can now better understand the situation.
    I urge everyone to read our entire discussion on your earlier post (linked above) so they will better understand the issue and see how open you were to the concerns I raised.
    It seems to me that the answers you’ve received so far support the points I earlier made.
    The FDA is doing the bidding of ONLY A PORTION of the food industry. The GMA represents a lot of big players in the American food system but it is still only part of one segment.
    I don’t know a single farmer, rancher or food producer who supports the FDA’s policy. And now we have one of the large grower’s most influential associations–Western Growers–stating it has taken no position on the matter.
    I urge you to reword your question to be, “When is FDA going to wake up, put the health and safety of American consumers ahead of the interests of certain big players in the American food system, and provide us all with timely and complete information?”
    The responses you’ve received (both active and passive) show the American food system is far from monolithic.
    Carefully focusing pointed questions like yours supports the diversity in the American food system needed for healthy discussion and change. It also reduces the misperceptions of American consumers so they are able to make wiser personal food safety decisions and more acutely influence the issues.
    Please keep plugging away at this!

  • Jim Schmidt

    Bogus.
    You know how many times I’ve been in facilities and pulled recalled products off shelves and the owner/manager didn’t even know about the recall?
    Add to this that your local Health Department doesn’t, for the most part, have the manpower to go out for every recall and police shelves. Add to the fact that I get my recall notices the same way others do, I subscribe to the recall notices on the FDA email list.

  • Ben Mark

    If the produce industry would follow the 2002 Bio Terrorism Law, the COOL law and FSMA with full traceback everybody could see where the product got moved to. Not having all the steps in place is putting consumers at risk. A law is only as good as it is been followed and enforced. All the organization Phyllis contacted are pushing us into the PTI knowing this expensive barcode doesn’t do anything for traceback as it is needed to get the contaminated stuff off the market ASAP.

  • Phyllis,
    Thanks for following through on this as you promised. We, your readers, can now better understand the situation.
    I urge everyone to read our entire discussion on your earlier post (linked above) so they will better understand the issue and see how open you were to the concerns I raised.
    It seems to me that the answers you’ve received so far support the points I earlier made.
    The FDA is doing the bidding of ONLY A PORTION of the food industry. The GMA represents a lot of big players in the American food system but it is still only part of one segment.
    I don’t know a single farmer, rancher or food producer who supports the FDA’s policy. And now we have one of the large grower’s most influential associations–Western Growers–stating it has taken no position on the matter.
    I urge you to reword your question to be, “When is FDA going to wake up, put the health and safety of American consumers ahead of the interests of certain big players in the American food system, and provide us all with timely and complete information?”
    The responses you’ve received (both active and passive) show the American food system is far from monolithic.
    Carefully focusing pointed questions like yours supports the diversity in the American food system needed for healthy discussion and change. It also reduces the misperceptions of American consumers so they are able to make wiser personal food safety decisions and more acutely influence the issues.
    Please keep plugging away at this!

  • Phyllis, Harry, Jim, Ben,
    I question whether the real crisis here is in removing the product from the shelves quickly enough, or in just convincing a company that they should initiate a recall.
    Once a company’s leadership recognizes that they have significant assets at risk due to liability of contaminated product being sold in stores today, they will do everything in their power to remove the product from the shelves to reduce their risk. They will work overtime to identify all retailers and hound them to remove the product. There are even crisis management companies who offer retail policing services to food companies. If the management believes the evidence presented by FDA and CDC/States is credible, they will not want to get sued by more customers than are already sick. It’s bad for their short- and long-term performance.
    I challenge you to take the lead in your local communities to police your local shelves. I do it and I’ve identified a number of products on store shelves after voluntary recalls, and the grocery store never gets published online. The managers know me. Do they know you? That is public health!
    Evan
    http://www.edibledisaster.wordpress.com