By: Stephen Ostroff, M.D., and Howard Sklamberg, J.D.
When a potentially contaminated food is on the market, time is of the essence to keep people from becoming ill. Yet there are times when it is difficult to determine what actions should be taken. This can happen when we do not have enough information to reach a clear decision.
To better address these situations, in April FDA established a team of senior leaders that is brought in to make decisions in the most challenging cases. The team is called SCORE, which originally stood for Strategic Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation, but it soon became clear that the scope of its work is broader than outbreaks. The team looks at cases in which recalls and other actions may be needed, even when there are no reports that people have fallen ill. So SCORE now stands for Strategic Coordinated Oversight of Recall Execution.
And we’re happy to report that SCORE is already making a difference, helping to overcome obstacles and streamlining processes to get potentially harmful foods off the market as soon as possible to reduce further consumer exposure.
In the last six months, SCORE has reviewed and directed operations in cases that include flour contaminated with peanut protein, (a major food allergen), facilities contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, pistachios in which Salmonella was detected, and baby food that was not manufactured in compliance with infant formula regulations. All of these cases resulted in recalls and announcements issued by the firms and FDA.
SCORE was launched, in part, in response to concerns raised by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General about FDA’s ability to ensure that companies initiate voluntary recalls in a prompt and effective manner. While FDA staff were already helping to facilitate thousands of prompt and successful voluntary recalls, we recognized the need for an enhanced response in certain, more complex cases.
In the cases brought to the team, we believe that SCORE has helped determine the right course of action and shorten recall timeframes, getting the products off the market faster. SCORE has helped improve tactical planning, leading to additional inspections and sampling assignments, and to getting the word out to more consumers about potentially dangerous products. In one case, FDA suspended a food facility’s registration after a reinspection and additional sampling requested by SCORE showed continued contamination. Suspension of registration effectively shuts a facility down until FDA determines that there is no longer a reasonable probability that foods produced there will cause serious illnesses or death.
We set individual deadlines and got prompt results in these, and other, instances. FDA staff are seeing these actions as a model for their efforts going forward.
FDA has been evolving over the past few years into an agency that speaks with one voice in its oversight of food safety. SCORE’s membership includes leaders from within the directorates of Foods and Veterinary Medicine and Global Regulatory Operations and Policy, in addition to the Office of the Chief Counsel. The spectrum of expertise covers inspections and investigations, compliance and enforcement, policy, legal, communications, outbreak response and, most important, science.
This team is in its infancy but the results it has achieved thus far signal an integrated approach to food recalls that will help ensure a swift response no matter what obstacles arise. The arrival of the compliance dates for the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act rules overseeing the safety of domestic and imported foods are putting additional food safety controls in place to help reduce food contamination. And the work of SCORE and its colleagues will continue.
SCORE’s goals for the next year include identifying and closing gaps that slow the process of determining whether a food is a threat to public health or interfere with identifying the right actions to take in response to potential contamination. Our ultimate goal is to continue to improve our ability to protect consumers from contaminated food.
Stephen Ostroff, M.D., is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, and Howard Sklamberg, J.D., is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Global Regulatory Operations and Policy.