In a year when it had pepper up its nose and egg on its face, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still did a tidy little business managing the so-called “voluntary” recalls of America’s food industry.
More than 235 FDA market recalls and withdrawals are in the book for 2010, a year that has not been the agency’s finest hour. It blew the chance for smooth implementation of an egg rule that was years in the making and held the promise of bringing Salmonella Enteritidis, which lives inside eggs, under control.
Instead FDA faced headlines about the “government’s failure to act” in major newspapers when two egg producers were forced to recall 550 million shell eggs after their operations were linked to a Salmonella E. outbreak that last spring infected at least 1,900 people.
It was the largest recall of table eggs in U.S. history.
Under the new egg rule, which went into effect on July 9, 2010, egg producers for the first time faced some specific requirements from FDA. It was because it did not earlier have such specific rules or standards that FDA rarely inspected egg farms.
Although inspections were hardly the centerpiece of the many plans the agency had for implementing the new egg rule, inspections of the two Iowa farms–after they were linked to the outbreak–revealed them to be breeding grounds for SE.
FDA started the year looking more in command with the way it handled the discovery of hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) contaminated with Salmonella Tennessee at a food processing plant in North Las Vegas.
HVP is a common flavoring ingredient in processed foods, including soups, sauces, dips, dressings and stews. Nevada’s Basic Food Flavors supplies the flavoring ingredient to hundreds of other food companies.
FDA credited its new Food Registry for the early warning. It told food companies to recall any product that used HVP and did not involve a “kill step” to eliminate the Salmonella. That led to 177 products being recalled in the HVP dragnet.
“Our investigators were able to identify this problem before any illnesses occurred,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.
For a moment, FDA was the proactive food safety agency it wants to be, not the reactive one it is most of the time.
Also early in the year, FDA was confronted with an outbreak of Salmonella Montevideo that eventually infected 245 people in 44 states and the District of Columbia.
The investigation led to Rhode Island-based Daniele International Inc., which recalled ready-to-eat, Italian-style meats. While that would ordinarily be USDA’s problem, it was the pepper coating on the meat that put the investigation into FDA’s hands.
FDA found that pepper from two of Daniele’s suppliers, Mincing Overseas Spice Co., and Wholesome Spice Co., were contaminated with the outbreak strain and those products were also recalled. The pepper was imported, probably from Vietnam.
Among the reasons for recalls are all sorts of health risks from undeclared allergens to bacterial contamination. When it is bacteria, most FDA recalls are for Salmonella and Listeria, but also E. coli.
In May, FDA found that romaine lettuce distributed by Freshway Foods matched an outbreak of E. coli O145 with confirmed cases in Michigan, Ohio and New York.
Both Ohio-based Freshway and Vaughan Foods, an Oklahoma supplier, recalled the bagged lettuce product that was grown outside of Yuma, AZ.
Last summer, at least nine people in California and Nevada came down with typhoid fever, caused by Salmonella Typhi. Typhoid fever is not common in the U.S., although it is common in many developing countries.
When that outbreak investigation found that only one of the victims had ever traveled outside the country, it fell to FDA to find the product that brought the Typhi here. It turned out that a mamey fruit pulp used in smoothies was responsible, and brought about the recalls of the La Nuestra and Goya brands.
A handful of dog and pet food recalls are included in 237 FDA recalls for 2010. Handling contaminated pet food can transmit Salmonella to humans.