A few weeks ago many government agencies announced they would be following public health recommendations and have non-essential employees stay home because of the coronavirus pandemic. Among the staff activities and services suspended by the FDA were certain random tests of food and inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities, which includes the entire food supply chain.

That seemed really odd to me because if testing for pathogens such as E. coli and parasites like Cyclospora aren’t essential public health services provided by the Food and Drug Administration, I can’t imagine what are.

Then there’s the fact that food recalls have dropped off compared to the same time period in 2019. And, most of the recalls posted this year that have been related to food have had to do with undeclared allergens — not unusual in and of itself, but the number of recalls for foodborne pathogens has been lower in recent weeks than it was in 2019.

The way it usually works is that some governmental entity pulls a random sample of some food, often fresh produce including bagged salads, and tests it for pathogens. If positive results are returned, the government notifies the company and suggests a recall. Most of the time the company agrees to avoid having the FDA use its mandatory recall authority.

We at Food Safety News watch the food recalls all day every day. We noticed the decrease so I sent four questions to the FDA. A spokesperson for the agency sent responses for two and a half of the questions.

That level of response is about par for local, state, and federal folks in most scenarios.

The majority of the FDA’s answers are boilerplate language, most of which was already posted online, thus spurring my more specific questions.

In the interest of transparency, here are my four questions and the FDA’s responses. I think they misunderstood — possibly like having selective hearing difficulties when someone wants you to do something — Questions 3 and 4, which we’re referring to reports for known foodborne pathogens and extraneous material, not for COVID-19.  

Beach Beat Questions

1. Can someone provide comments about the drop in food recalls since the testing/inspection cutbacks related to COVID-19?

2. I’ve read the info on the (agency) website and am looking for more details, such as how many food recalls there were during the same period in 2019.

3. Is there any concern that contaminated food is reaching consumers? 

4. Have there been any reports of contamination or illnesses related to foodborne pathogens or extraneous material since the inspections/testing was rolled back?

Answers from FDA (Numbered by FDA)

1. Is there any concern that contaminated food is reaching consumers?

The FDA’s food safety net remains strong. For the time being, we are not doing in-person routine surveillance inspections of farms and food facilities in this country and others that export foods to the United States. 

We are doing this to limit exposure to the virus and out of concern for the safety of FDA investigators, state inspectors, and the workers in these farms and facilities as people all over the world are sheltering in place.

However, we are still doing mission-critical inspections when needed to protect public health. Such inspections could be necessitated by natural disasters, outbreaks of foodborne illness, Class 1 recalls, and, in some cases, inspections at firms with a poor track record when it comes to food safety.  

We have other tools and authorities to help ensure the safety of imported foods, including product examinations at the ports of entry and the use of PREDICT, our risk-based import screening tool to focus our examinations and sample collections.

And the FDA is conducting a limited number of remote inspections involving the electronic submission of records by importers covered by the Foreign Supplier Verification Programs (FSVP) requirements. We are prioritizing importers of food from foreign suppliers whose onsite food facility or farm inspections have been postponed due to COVID-19.

It’s also important to remember that the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) changed the paradigm on food safety from detection to prevention.  FDA-regulated facilities are required to have preventive controls in place each and every day to ensure that the foods they produce are safe.  The industry has the primary responsibility to ensure the foods they produce are safe and by and large, they’re doing an amazing job at providing safe and available food to consumers.  Clearly, at this critical time, food safety is as important as it has ever been, and we expect food producers to redouble their food safety efforts.

And last but not least, FDA’s Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) Network is fully staffed and on the job looking for signs of foodborne illness outbreaks. CORE works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other partners in local, state, and federal government to protect consumers from contaminated foods.

2. Have there been any reports of contamination or illnesses related to foodborne pathogens or extraneous material since the inspections/testing was rolled back?

Currently, there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19.

In response to interest regarding how the number of food recalls initiated since the start of the pandemic compares to a similar timeframe last year, from March 11, 2020 (date pandemic declared) through April 29, 2020, 26 human food recalls were posted to the FDA Enforcement Report database.  In comparison, 60 human food recalls were posted to the Enforcement Report with recall initiation dates between March 11, 2019, and April 29, 2019.

Please note that recall initiation dates are publicly available in the Enforcement Report and may be found at https://www.fda.gov/safety/recalls-market-withdrawals-safety-alerts/enforcement-reports.

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