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Letter From The Editor: The Recall Drill

Our estimable publisher, Bill Marler, is a never-ending fountain of wisdom and expertise. And I ignore most of it (just kidding boss!).

However, I must admit, he did get me thinking a couple weeks back when he began drawing red lines on the epi curve charts that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) include in their reports on outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.

Bill’s red lines mark the recall dates, and help illustrate a fact no one seems to talk about–most of the illnesses and deaths occur before the public ever hears of the recall.

I’ve been wondering this week if the dirty little secret might be that in reality recalls are for just for drill. Never more did that thought seem likely than during the Aug. 17-22 period when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the impression it was recalling cantaloupes from an unnamed southwest Indiana grower.

FDA is fortunate for the fact that the public still wants to take the agency seriously. I don’t think the Consumer Products Safety Commission would ever do it, but can you imagine if they did come out with a recall notice for baby cribs made in some state, but where they declined to name the manufacturer?

No, I don’t think you will see the day when the government says: “If you have any doubt, throw your baby’s crib out.” Yet, that’s what FDA did with cantaloupe last week. It cast all cantaloupes grown in southwest Indiana as suspect, and then said throw it all out if you were “in doubt.”

Now we know that FDA took this stance after Indiana cantaloupe grower Tim Chamberlain agreed to an Aug. 17 market withdrawal, but declined to go along with the typical recall until changing his mind sometime late on Aug. 22.

State labs had linked cantaloupes from Chamberlain Farm being sold at retail by this time, and they could have gone ahead and announced their findings. It would have helped FDA from again looking silly, but the state officials who knew went along with the ruse.

With all this swirling around in my mind, I decided to read the recent Government Accountability Office report to Congress titled” “FDA’s Food Advisory and Recall Process Needs Strengthening” published last month.

In did remind me how tangled the recall process can become unless the company involved is fully cooperative. We count on a responsible food industry working hand-in-glove with the government. And that’s what we get almost all the time.

To order recalls, FDA has to meet a standard of proof, offer the company the opportunity to do it voluntarily, and provide a hearing if there is a challenge. The only exception to giving resisters procedural cover is if infant formula is involved.

FDA’s new recall procedure under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) are hung up with the rest of the implementation regulations that are in review by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

I’m all for due process, but the fact that one Tim Chamberlain could throw a wrench in this recall drill seems very backward. Because he would not cooperate, FDA and the states keep his dirty little secret for five more days.

If FDA is really serious about preventing illnesses and deaths, then this has to change. As I said earlier, public health officials could have connected the dots for the public. Any melon found on a retail shelf can be purchased, tested, and the results announced along with information about the grower.

Other than self-promotion, I don’t think we have any example of public health using social media to inform and enlist the public to action in the way that many local police departments are now using these mechanisms to fight crime.

Again, maybe FDA does what it does for drill. I hope not.

Okay, I am sounding pretty pessimistic and there is one ray of light that may be appearing on the horizon.

In 2004, both FDA and USDA told GAO they could not provide the names of retail outlets that received recalled foods. Before he left government service, however, Dr. Richard Raymond, former under secretary for food safety got USDA’s policy changed.

Ever since, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has compiled retail lists for meat, poultry and egg recalls and distributed them to the media.

In the GAO report, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), said FDA too could provide retail lists associated with products in a recall.

Since the Aug. 22 cantaloupe recall by Chamberlain Farm, we’ve been asked for just such a list. FDA tells us they don’t “have the distribution list yet.” In the meantime, here’s what we do know about the retail distribution of those bad cantaloupes.

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