Since early September, federal law has required any facility that manufactures, packs, or holds human or animal food to issue an electronic report to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) if the company realizes it shipped potentially harmful food into commerce.

The FDA set up an online Reportable Food Registry (RFR) as a portal for accepting such reports, but the results and efficacy of the system have largely remained a mystery. There have been no press releases or formal announcements from the agency, and if you ask around the food safety world, many will tell you they don’t know too much about the system, other than it is hard to use.

Food Safety News has learned that as of November 30, 2009, the agency received 385 reports on FDA-regulated foods from both food industry facilities and public health officials–no word yet on how many of the reports the agency followed up on, though an FDA spokesperson confirmed that a review team meets every day to discuss the electronic reports.

When asked how well industry was complying with the RFR, or whether there were any signs that the system was working, an agency spokesperson said it was too soon to tell.

“The Registry has been operational for too short a time to assess patterns of food adulteration or the extent to which industry complies with the new mandate. However, the early indications are that the Registry is accessible and usable, and that the food industry will do its part in helping to protect the public health by complying,” said the agency in a statement provided to Food Safety News.

While it may be too soon to evaluate the Registry’s role in the larger food safety system, there are many signs that the new portal could be more user-friendly.

Several people familiar with the Registry, for example, complained that the system logs you out if you take too long to input all your information. 

David Acheson, former commissioner for foods at the FDA, who now helps food companies understand and comply with the regulatory system, thinks the system could be improved. “The site is not easy to navigate and is not user friendly–folks are looking forward to Version 2!” Acheson told Food Safety News.

“There appears to be some question as to whether it will provide useful data for FDA that they would not get anyway from other means,” added Acheson. “Honest folks will contact FDA if they have a class I type situation already and dishonest folks will still dodge the issue and hope they get away with it.”