After a decade of food recalls under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), not everything has turned out as expected.

President Barack Obama signed the FSMA into law during the first week of 2011. Among the many new powers that the FSMA gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the right to mandatory food recalls.

Yet in the first decade of FSMA, there’s only been a handful of mandatory recalls. It’s likely true that U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, has called for more mandatory recalls than FDA. As chair of the food safety caucus in Congress,  she’s been known to suggest when the FDA Commissioner should be ordering a mandatory recall.

It took eight years after gaining statutory power to mandate food recalls for FDA to use the authority just three times. Since 2011, the FDA used its mandatory recall power in 2013, 2014, and 2018.

FDA has not been “shy about flexing its recall muscles,” former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said: “It’s just that most companies collaborate with the FDA to initiate voluntary recalls of hazardous food products rapidly.”

Food companies are fond of reporting on their “voluntary recalls.” But how “voluntary” are they if inaction can result in criminal charges. That, some say, might be why FDA’s mandatory recall authority does not have to be directly used to be effective.

Food recalls are part of the food safety landscape. FDA shares the authority over recalls with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The USDA does not, however, have mandatory recall authority for the products it regulates, which are meat, poultry and some processed egg products.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has sponsored legislation to give the FSIS mandatory recall authority over contaminated meat and poultry. Without it, FSIS can only issue “public health alerts.” when public health is at risk.

Both FDA and FSIS announce recalls. These lists are hard to compare in that FDA’s usually involve “units” and FSIS keeps track of weights.

For most of the past couple of years, the top reason for FDA recalls has been undeclared allergens. Milk is the most common cause of food recalls for undeclared allergens.

Bacterial contamination concerns are the second most common reason for FDA recalls. And during the most recent quarter, bacterial contamination was the leading cause of FSIS recalls.

The most recent FSIS recalls shot up to 10.7 million pounds, up from 207,000 pounds during the previous quarter. Eight other FSIS recalls were for undeclared allergens (4), foreign material contamination(3), and lack of inspection. (1).

FSIS recalls were for poultry, pork, and beef products and multiple meat sources. USDA usually announces about a dozen recalls each quarter. FDA reports around 96 recalls per quarter.

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