All News / Outbreaks /

GAO: Food recalls ineffective

Dangerous food potentially stays on shelves too long because of ineffective recalls, a congressional watchdog agency warns.
The McClatchy Washington Bureau reports less than half of the recalled food studied was actually returned or destroyed, the Government Accountability Office noted in its new study. Moreover, federal officials can’t issue mandatory recall orders for food – a power other agencies have over dangerous toys or medical devices.
“Consumers may be vulnerable to serious illness, hospitalization, and even death, in part, because of weaknesses in (federal) programs for monitoring companies’ recalls of unsafe food,” the GAO said.
Even so, some of the proposed solutions might cause gagging among California’s politically attuned food processors. In particular, the GAO is urging Congress to grant the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration the authority to flat-out order food recalls.

“Historically, we have tended to shy away from mandatory recalls,” Ed Yates, president of the Sacramento-based California League of Food Processors, said Friday. “However, we are taking up that question again.” Citing the increasing frequency of food recalls, Yates said the industry has now been asked by state officials to re-evaluate whether some mandatory recall authority might be appropriate.
“There may be a limited number of circumstances where it might be warranted,” Yates said.
Undeniably, food recalls are getting more common. Last year, 36 million pounds of meat and poultry were recalled, compared to about 6 million pounds in 1988. Investigators identified a total of 373 food recalls in 2003. Some were tragic. Two large food recalls last year were associated with nearly 100 hospitalizations or serious illnesses, eight deaths and three miscarriages, the GAO noted.
Food recalls are handled differently than recalls of other products. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, for instance, can compel manufacturers to recall dangerous products. With the exception of baby formula, by contrast, food recalls are voluntary.
Different foods are also handled by different agencies. The Agriculture Department oversees recalls of meat, poultry and eggs. The Food and Drug Administration oversees recalls of other foods, as in the May recall of several million packages of raw almonds produced by the Kern County-based Paramount Farms.
“Weaknesses in these agencies’ systems for monitoring food recalls heighten the risk that unsafe food will remain in the food supply and ultimately be consumed,” the GAO cautioned.
In cases reviewed by investigators, the federal agencies took more than a month to ensure that all distributors and stores had received the recall notices.
The agencies monitor food recalls, in part, by consolidating information about them and informing consumers. Earlier this month, for instance, the government’s web site noted the voluntary recall of 4,800 packages of potentially mislabeled Whole Meal Enchilada with Spanish Rice and Beans, produced by the Santa Rosa-based Amy’s Kitchen.
“Most of the recalls have to do with label misstatements,” Yates said, adding that, “label requirements are pretty strict.”
The agencies also monitor recalls by verifying that the food has been returned or destroyed. The GAO examined 20 food recalls from last year to see how well the job was being done; the only California-based case was the recall of 5,622 cases of fresh-cut bagged lettuce from Salinas, potentially contaminated with listeria.
Investigators found federal officials “do not know how promptly and completely companies are carrying out recalls.” The GAO analysis also concluded that only 36 percent of Agriculture Department-regulated food had been recovered following a recall, and only 38 percent of FDA-regulated food.
“Recovering perishable foods is particularly challenging because they may be subject to recall after the product’s shelf life has passed,” the GAO noted.
The Agriculture Department termed some of the GAO’s findings as “alarmist,” and questioned whether mandatory recalls would actually lead to longer delays because of appeals. Overall, though, the agency said most problems identified would be addressed by new procedural changes instituted in May.
In the soon-to-expire 108th Congress, lawmakers introduced several bills to grant mandatory recall authority over food; one bill, for instance, would specifically grant recall authority over food used in school lunch programs.
None of these bills attracted any sponsors from the Central Valley, and none received a congressional hearing.

Get Help

Affected by an outbreak or recall?

The team at Marler Clark is here to answer all your questions. Find out if you’re eligible for a lawsuit, what questions to ask your doctor, and more.

Get a free consultation
Related Resources
E. coli Food Poisoning

What is E. coli and how does it cause food poisoning? Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a highly studied, common species of bacteria that belongs to the family Enterobacteriaceae, so...

E. coli O157:H7

E. coli O157:H7 is a foodborne pathogen that causes food poisoning. E. coli O157:H7 is the most commonly identified and the most notorious Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) serotype in...

Non-O157 STEC

Non-O157 Shiga Toxin-Producing E. coli can also cause food poisoning. E. coli O157:H7 may be the most notorious serotype of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC), but there are at least...

Sources of E. coli

Where do E. coli O157:H7 and non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) come from? The primary reservoirs, or ultimate sources, of E. coli O157:H7 and non-O157 STEC in nature are...

Transmission of and Infection with E. coli

While many dairy cattle-associated foodborne disease outbreaks are linked to raw milk and other raw dairy products (e.g., cheeses, butter, ice cream), dairy cattle still represent a source of contamination...

Outbreak Database

Looking for a comprehensive list of outbreaks?

The team at Marler Clark is here to answer all your questions. Find out if you’re eligible for a lawsuit, what questions to ask your doctor, and more.

View Outbreak Database