Americans depend on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to help ensure that the foods they buy and consume are safe.
When we learn that potentially dangerous food products may be available in the U.S. marketplace, we must move quickly and efficiently to remove these food products from the market.
Our teams routinely work with food producers on voluntary recalls, and when necessary and where applicable, mandate recalls in order to keep people from getting sick or being harmed. We recognize that an important part of the recall process is also arming consumers with actionable information that they can use to avoid potentially contaminated food products. We’re committed to providing consumers with more information to take these actions. This is an area where we see more opportunity to improve the FDA’s role in protecting public health. To promote these goals, we’re advancing an important new policy.
When a food recall is initiated, the FDA typically works with companies to publicize labeling information, product descriptions, lot numbers, as well as photographs and geographic or retail-related distribution information. The aim is to enable consumers to identify whether they have the recalled product and take appropriate actions. That often includes discarding the product or returning it to the place of purchase.
The agency has not traditionally released lists of specific retailers where recalled foods may have been purchased. This is because certain supply chain information is confidential between the supplier and retailer. Moreover, in most cases, information publicized by the recalling company is sufficient to allow consumers to identify and avoid recalled product. But there are some cases where additional information about the retailers selling potentially harmful product may be key to protecting consumers such as when the food is not easily identified as being subject to a recall from its retail packaging and the food is likely to be available for consumption. It is particularly important in situations where the product has already been linked to foodborne illness. In these situations, providing retailer information can help consumers more quickly and accurately recognize recalled product and take action to avoid the product or seek assistance if they’ve already been exposed.
We recognize the importance of providing consumers with actionable information related to recalled food products. That’s why today the FDA issued new draft guidance that describes situations when disclosing retail information for products undergoing recalls is appropriate. The draft guidance outlines the circumstances when the FDA intends to make public the retail locations that may have sold or distributed a recalled human or animal food. These circumstances will particularly apply in situations associated with the most serious recalls, where consumption of the food has a reasonable probability of causing serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals.
Based on this new policy, moving forward the FDA intends to publicize retail consignee lists for food recalls when the food is not easily identified as being subject to a recall from its retail packaging, or lack thereof, and if the food is likely to be available for consumption. Some examples of this may include foods sold directly to consumers with no universal product code or UPC, or bar code. This might include deli cheese, nuts, rawhide chews, or pet treats sold in bulk and fresh fruits and vegetables sold individually.
The new draft guidance also states that the FDA may disclose retail consignee lists in certain recall situations, including when a recalled food is related to a foodborne illness outbreak and where the information is most useful to consumers. For example, the FDA might release retailer information for a packaged food that was distributed in a particular geographic region or through a particular online retailer if providing that information could help consumers protect their health and wellbeing from a recalled food potentially purchased at one of these establishments.
In recent months, we’ve already begun taking actions that align with this approach.
For example, this summer the agency released detailed retail distribution information by state during a recall of pre-cut melon associated with an outbreak of Salmonella infections so consumers could better identify where the recalled food may have been purchased. The draft guidance released today, provides greater transparency on our intention to regularly use this approach in these and other scenarios.
We believe that providing retailer information for certain recalls will also improve the efficiency of recalls by helping the public to identify and focus on the foods that are recalled. It’s important to note that in sharing this information, the FDA may also not be able to fully verify the accuracy or completeness of the information it receives from recalling companies or distributors, and information may change over time.
Identifying retail locations can be complex. It can involve obtaining information from multiple parts of the supply chain, including the recalling company and intermediate distributors. But we also know this information can be very important to consumers. Knowing where a recalled product was sold during the most dangerous food recalls can be the difference between a consumer going to the hospital or not. While we can’t prevent every illness, we can make sure we provide information to consumers to prevent more people from becoming sick from a recalled or hazardous food product.
Chapman told USA Today that, “We can never become too vigilant when talking about food safety. We’re talking about 48 million cases of food-borne illnesses a year and that estimate being stable over the last 10 years. There are lots of ways for improvement.”
He said he personally shops at numerous grocery stores for his family, so he doesn’t always remember where he buys what, especially unmarked items, such as sweet potatoes and onions.
The FDA plan to cite specific retailers “can trigger that ‘Oh, I did shop at these places. Maybe I need to start looking,’ ” Chapman said.
Nice to see Chapman stepping up to fill the gap I left. But he still needs me to write it up.
Going public: Early disclosure of food risks for the benefit of public health
NEHA, Volume 79.7, Pages 8-14
Benjamin Chapman, Maria Sol Erdozaim, Douglas Powell
Often during an outbreak of foodborne illness, there are health officials who have data indicating that there is a risk prior to notifying the public. During the lag period between the first public health signal and some release of public information, there are decision makers who are weighing evidence with the impacts of going public. Multiple agencies and analysts have lamented that there is not a common playbook or decision tree for how public health agencies determine what information to release and when. Regularly, health authorities suggest that how and when public information is released is evaluated on a case-by-case basis without sharing the steps and criteria used to make decisions. Information provision on its own is not enough. Risk communication, to be effective and grounded in behavior theory, should provide control measure options for risk management decisions. There is no indication in the literature that consumers benefit from paternalistic protection decisions to guard against information overload. A review of the risk communication literature related to outbreaks, as well as case studies of actual incidents, are explored and a blueprint for health authorities to follow is provided.