For those of us in the United States, eating peanut butter became a source of concern in January 2009, when a multi-state outbreak of salmonella prompted the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) to recall "all peanut products produced on or after January 1, 2007. Some of the recalls by firms supplied by PCA involved foods sold directly to consumers, such as peanut butter crackers, peanut butter cookies, and ice cream made with peanut butter, and some involved food products sold directly to institutions, restaurants, the food service industry, and private label food companies." By March 2009, hundreds of people had become ill and nine people had died from salmonella associated with PCA's peanut products. Because of the financial damage resulting from these events, PCA filed for bankruptcy protection.
In September 2006, consumers had another scare when bagged spinach was recalled due to E. coli contamination. Recently, there have been reports in the media that high-fructose corn syrup, which is found in so much of our food, contains mercury. We have to wonder about the safety of our food supply.
Most Americans turn to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for information on the safety of our food. The FDA is a division of the Department of Health and Human Services and its primary mission is to protect the public health. It ensures that FDA-regulated products are safe. However, what many Americans don't realize is that the FDA cannot actually force manufacturer recalls for most food products.
The FDA advises consumers not to eat recalled products and to dispose of them so that others cannot eat them. Consumers are also urged to consult their health care providers if they think they may have become ill due to eating products related to a recall. Retailers are advised to stop selling recalled products and to check the FDA's resources often to make sure they are not selling anything on a recall list. Those who head institutions and food service establishments are also advised to make sure they are not serving recalled products and to stay on top of new products being added to the list. Food manufacturers are urged to inform consumers about the ingredients contained in their products and whether they may contain any of the recalled items.
However, in most cases, the FDA can do little more than advise.
On March 2, 2009, the acting FDA Commissioner, Frank M. Torti, issued a Viewpoint Message on the FDA website. He stated that inspectors are working across the country to make sure that recalled products are being removed from store shelves. He also makes it clear that outside of infant formula, the FDA has no authority to recall food. The recalls are voluntary. Torti states:
"New legislative authorities and the ability to enforce them are essential to permit the FDA to act forcefully and effectively. The recent outbreak exposes the extraordinary constraints on FDA officials. For example, few people realize that, with the exception of infant formula, the FDA has no authority to recall foods. We need enhanced authority to issue preventive controls for foods, greater access to food records during routine inspections, authority to require food facilities to renew their registrations, and mandatory recall authority. We are working with the Department of Health and Human Services to develop these new authorities and present our suggestions to Congress."
In the absence of mandatory recalls, we as consumers and businesses need to keep ourselves informed. When it comes to our food, knowledge will go a long way in keeping us safe.
For its part, the FDA has made greater outreach efforts to the public using social media. The FDA can be found on Twitter, where it constantly updates food item recalls. Information on food recalls and warnings is also available on the FDA's website. And for those who prefer the phone, the FDA's food safety information line is 1-888-SAFEFOOD.