Food supply at risk - watchdog slams FDA

@CNNMoney June 23, 2011: 6:21 PM ET
Government review of recalls of imported foods slams the Food and Drug Administration for serious lapses.

Government review of recalls of imported foods slams the Food and Drug Administration for serious lapses.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- A new government review of some of the most serious food recalls in recent years slammed the nation's top food safety agency for not effectively protecting the U.S. food supply.

The scathing review by the Department of Health and Human Services found that the safety of the nation's food supplies was compromised because FDA did not always follow its own guidelines to properly handle recalls.

HHS also said FDA didn't conduct comprehensive reviews of companies' recalls and didn't supervise how companies disposed of their recalled products.

HHS reviewed 17 Class 1 recalls of imported food items for Salmonella, Listeria and Botulism contamination from July 1, 2007 through June 30, 2008 and were overseen by its Food and Drug Administration division.

Food recalls are classified as Class 1, Class 2 or Class 3. Class 1 recalls are issued for products that could kill you or cause irreversible medical harm if consumed.

"We focused our review only on the most serious recalls in recent years, something you could drop dead from if you ate it," said George Nedder, with HHS' Office of Inspector General.

"We're very concerned with the findings of our audit," Nedder said.

The government couldn't target more recent food recalls because many of them -- and the investigations tied to them -- are still ongoing.

One in 6 Americans, or 48 million people, get sick from food-related diseases every year, including 3,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Drug shortages at an all-time high

Food companies blamed too: The report also called out food companies for blatantly ignoring the law by not promptly recalling contaminated products.

In one case, the report said a company didn't initiate a recall of a Listeria-contaminated mussel meat from New Zealand until three months after the Food and Drug Administration learned about the the problem.

The review said food companies also did not give the FDA full and accurate information about contaminated products.

One reason for that, the report acknowledges, is that before 2011, the FDA did not have authority to mandate recalls or fine companies that mishandled food recalls.

Therefore, the FDA was handicapped in its ability to adequately ensure the safety of the nation's food supply," the report said.

But the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed by President Obama in January, now gives FDA the authority to force companies to recall products.

The FDA, in response to the audit report, said with this new authority, the agency will now strengthen efforts to remove dangerous food products from the market.

But Nedder and others within HHS aren't so sure because the new law hasn't been implemented yet.

Regulations and compliance standards have to be discussed and written before it is enforced, said Marc Wolfson, spokesman with HHS' the Office of Inspector General.

"FDA is aware it has a challenge," Wolfson said. "You add up the facts and it's intuitively obvious what this means in the meantime about the safety of our food supply." To top of page

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