Our Goal in Enforcing Food Safety: A Rapid, Science-Based Response

By: Stephen Ostroff and Howard Sklamberg

Recalls of potentially unsafe foods are an important food safety tool. The FDA most often works with companies to bring about voluntary recalls, with the goal of getting the product out of the marketplace as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Stephen Ostroff, M.D.

Stephen Ostroff, M.D., FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) empowers the FDA to act when a company does not voluntarily cease distribution and recall a potentially dangerous food product. The enforcement tools provided by FSMA include mandatory recall.

Because the vast majority of companies choose a voluntary recall when presented with science-based evidence that their products are unsafe, or reasonably likely to be unsafe, the FDA has only rarely needed to use its mandatory recall authority. In most instances, companies choose to initiate a recall when faced with the prospect of an enforcement action.

The HHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has raised concerns about the sufficiency of processes and procedures the FDA has in place to ensure that firms take prompt and effective action in initiating voluntary recalls. To consumers hearing about the OIG alert, we want to be clear that the FDA is totally committed to its public health mission of ensuring the safety of the food supply. The United States has one of the world’s safest food supplies. The work we do—performing facility and site inspections, conducting surveillance sampling both domestically and at the border, and using laboratory and other analyses to help determine prevalence of food-borne risks—contributes to its safety each and every day.

Howard Sklamberg

Howard Sklamberg, J.D., FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Global Regulatory Operations and Policy

As a public health agency, the FDA continually works to improve its processes and appreciates the input from the OIG. In fact, the agency is now expediting changes already underway to strengthen its compliance and enforcement strategies, including voluntary and mandatory recalls. This includes, in individual situations, specifying timeframes for voluntary action by the firm and, if necessary, enforcement action by the agency.

But before we get into those changes, it’s helpful to consider what generally occurs before a voluntary recall takes place. The FDA’s actions have to be based in science and we go where the evidence leads us. The scope of a contamination must be ascertained to determine how much of a product must be recalled. The time needed to collect evidence can vary, but to request a recall without evidence risks recalling the wrong product and leaving consumers vulnerable to contaminated food that is still on the market.

Because the FDA acts on science-based evidence, it has credibility with food producers (and their internal and external legal teams) and consumers. Companies know that when they are approached by the agency, the danger is real and must be acted upon promptly. So the FDA, time and again, is able to protect consumers by engineering timely voluntary recalls.

The OIG’s concerns about the FDA’s food recall process are based on their selection of a “judgmental sample” of 30 voluntary recalls between October 1, 2012 and May 4, 2015 chosen based on their risk factor. The alert focuses in particular on two recalls in which the companies did not initiate recalls of all affected products for months despite the fact that FDA notified them as soon as the agency had evidence of a contamination. This finding is unacceptable–no question about that. It bears noting, however, that in those three years, the FDA worked with companies to successfully bring about thousands of recalls to keep unsafe food out of the market and homes of consumers with an average recall initiation time of less than a week.

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.

To speed the FDA’s response when regulated foods are tied to real and potential public health risks, including outbreaks of human illness, the agency has recently established a new process to help streamline and strengthen decisions about compliance and enforcement actions.

We have established the Strategic Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (SCORE) team, a decision-making body of key senior leaders that will be co-chaired by those responsible for directing compliance and enforcement activities in the foods program and field operations. Team members are from FDA’s Foods and Veterinary Medicine program, the Office of Regulatory Affairs, and the Office of the Chief Counsel. They are advised by senior scientific, medical, communications, and policy experts. This builds on FDA’s establishment of the Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) network in 2011 to coordinate and streamline outbreak response, working with state and local authorities and other federal agencies.

What this team brings to the table is an integrated approach to identifying timely and efficient measures to help mitigate public health risks, goals shared by the OIG. It will review investigations that have, or may have, a link to specific foods or a food facility when there is a serious human health risk. It will also be involved when the case involves complex policy questions, when additional expert support is needed, or when response timelines have not been met. The SCORE team’s involvement will speed the FDA’s response by evaluating the whole range of options for use of compliance and enforcement authorities as quickly as possible.

The SCORE team has only recently been established, and we will be reviewing how it works, refining its functions and performance as needed.

There are other ways in which our enforcement strategy is already being strengthened. Since 2014, we have been using whole genome sequencing in the laboratory as a regulatory tool to more rapidly identify foodborne contaminants and trace them to their source with unprecedented speed and precision. This technique has already proven to be a game-changer in outbreak response, and will be increasingly valuable in the future.

Looking ahead, protections will be further strengthened by the FSMA-mandated preventive controls rules for human and animal food, which require covered food facilities to identify potential hazards and take steps to minimize or eliminate risks. They are also required to have a recall plan. Compliance dates begin for certain firms in September 2016.

Our stated mission to protect public health is more than just words on paper. We are always working to be better at our job and will use the OIG’s input as it was intended–to further strengthen our protection of the food supply.

Stephen Ostroff, M.D., is the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine; Howard Sklamberg, J.D., is the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Global Regulatory Operations and Policy.

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