(Image: neil langan / shutterstock)

An ongoing audit of the FDA’s food recall system has come out with a preliminary report that throws some serious fire at the existing recall system, describing it as neither “efficient” nor “effective.”

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The auditors from the Office of the Inspector General reviewed 30 cases of food recalls by the FDA between 2012-2015 to back-check the efficiency of the food recall system. Among those cases was a recall of Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter that took over five months between the agency first identifying it as a potential problem and the company issuing a recall, and a case of Listeria-contaminated cheese that took almost three months.

These results, says the OIG report, show the need for a firm timeline for recalls to take place in:

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We found that FDA did not have an efficient and effective food recall initiation process that helps ensure the safety of the Nation’s food supply . . . FDA does not have adequate policies and procedures to ensure that firms take prompt and effective action in initiating voluntary food recalls. As a result, consumers remained at risk of illness or death for several weeks after FDA was aware of a potentially hazardous food in the supply chain. We suggest that FDA revise its policies and procedures to instruct recall staff to establish set timeframes for (1) FDA to request that firms voluntarily recall their products and (2) firms to initiate voluntary food recalls.

The FDA responded quickly with a post saying that two most problematic cases identified by the report, in which the recalls took months, were not representative of the recall system as a whole. Their average food recall time, said the agency, was less than a week.

Even more contentious was the preliminary reports recommendation for a single timeline for recalls to be issued, a recommendation that the FDA said in its response would result in “arbitrary” decision-making.

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We fully agree with the OIG that we must move as expeditiously as possible. We also agree that timeframes should be set, but they must be done on an individual basis rather than by setting arbitrary deadlines. The complexities surrounding recall events make it difficult for the FDA to establish a single timeline applicable to all situations.

Of course, the OIG’s summation was only its preliminary report—a full audit is yet to come. But the early release, along with the pointed recommendations at establishing timelines, seem geared at an attempt at forcing a quick change.

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The FDA says that it’s working now on a variety of ways to speed up the system in response, including expanding uses of whole genome sequencing tech. So faster recalls may, indeed, be coming—but when they will get here remains uncertain.