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FDA faces appeal for failing to reveal retailers in papaya outbreak

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) wants the Food and Drug Administration to release the names and locations of supermarkets and other retailers who sold papayas now subject to a nationwide recall because of a Salmonella outbreak.

But FDA won’t do it, even though another federal food safety agency routinely makes such retail lists freely available. That’s left CSPI with no other choice but to file an administrative appeal with  FDA  under the Freedom of Infomation Act (FOIA).

In announcing the action, CSPI noted the Salmonella outbreak linked to maradol papayas imported from Mexico is ongoing. To date, the outbreak has infected 201 people in 23 states. It’s also resulted in one death and 65 hospitalizations.

CSPI filed its request for the list of retailers on Aug. 17. The FDA admitted this week it has 451 pages of documents that are responsive to CSPI’s request. But it is withholding them, citing exemptions for trade secrets, “confidential corporate information” among other things.

FDA tells consumers on its website to ask retailers if they sold the suspect papayas.

“The typical consumer isn’t going to recognize the brand of papaya they buy or the farm it was grown on, but they know where they bought it,” said CSPI chief regulatory affairs counsel Sarah Sorscher.

“The FDA is supposed to be helping Americans avoid foodborne illness. It could improve by consistently disclosing retailer names and locations, along with brand names, dates of sale, lot numbers, and other useful information when it communicates with the media or with the public about recalls.”

CSPI said FDA’s reluctance to disclose retailers who might have sold contaminated products is not new, but it is also not consistent. In May, the FDA disclosed the names of retailers that sold tuna, imported from Indonesia, that tested positive for Hepatitis A.

The Consumer Federation of America, Pew Charitable Trusts, CSPI, and other health groups wrote to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in August, explaining why lists of retailers of recalled food are not exempt from disclosure under FOIA.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) decided several years ago that it could share with the public the names and locations of retail outlets involved with recalled products. That change came at the behest of Dr. Richard Raymond, USDA’s under secretary for food safety during President George W. Bush’s tenure.

Richard Raymond

Raymond, who before moving to Washington D.C. was Nebraska’s chief medical officer, previously told Food Safety News that without the “name and town” recalls are not be effective.

“When I was asked to move to D.C. to head up FSIS as its politically appointed under secretary, I knew I wanted to change the mindset that would not allow FSIS to release ‘proprietary information,’ as (FSIS) referred to the excuse that prevented it from releasing helpful information, or ‘confidential, corporate information’ as FDA has labeled the bureaucracy they hide behind on this issue,” Raymond recalled recently.

“I went to D.C. in 2005. The revised rule was posted in the Federal Register in 2008. That is actually pretty fast for Washington, D.C., a city of 12 square miles surrounded on all sides by sanity, ” he continued.

“Naturally, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the American Meat Institute were adamantly opposed to naming outlets possibly selling contaminated meat and poultry, along with many other associations and alliances, but common sense and sanity did actually prevail and now USDA does provide the stores’ names and locations.”

Almost a decade later, retail lists are now routinely attached by FSIS to recalls of meat, poultry, eggs and catfish.

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