FDA’s Puppet Master


Anyone trying to figure out who pulls FDA’s strings on retail distribution information policy for Class I recalls need look no farther than the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).

Every time a major food safety recall is announced, eFoodAlert receives questions from consumers who are trying to find out whether their favorite supermarket carried the recalled product. This was especially the case during the Jensen Farms cantaloupe recall, as not all of the recalled cantaloupes were individually labeled.

Two weeks ago, Harry Hamil (owner of Black Mountain Farmers Market and a regular eFoodAlert reader) took me to task over my rhetorical question “When is FDA going to wake up, put the health and safety of American consumers ahead of industry interests, and provide us all with timely and complete information?”

My specific complaint was over FDA’s refusal to release retail distribution information for Listeria monocytogenes-contaminated Jensen Farms cantaloupes. Harry challenged me to make three phone calls:

  1. To the White House, asking why USDA releases retail distribution lists while FDA does not;
  2. To the Western Growers Association, asking their position on release of this information; and
  3. To the Produce Marketing Association, asking their position of the release of retail distribution lists.

I followed up on Harry’s challenge by sending email requests to the Western Growers Association, the Produce Marketing Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, asking each of them for their position on the release of retail distribution lists for all Class I (highest hazard level) recalls. (I didn’t bother trying to contact the White House. My past efforts to do so have resulted in either no response or a “thank you for your interest” reply.)

The Produce Marketing Association never replied to my email, even though I made two attempts to contact them.

The Western Growers Association‘s Senior Vice President, Hank Giclas, responded that “WG does not have a formal position on the question of identifying retailers who sold recalled product.”

Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) had this to say:

“During a recall consumers should focus their attention on the specifics of the recalled product itself (i.e., name, variety, size, lot code). In a FDA Class I recall, all of this info is made public. Releasing a public list of all the retailers where the recalled products were sold does not make sense from a food safety perspective. Any proposed list could change from week to week or even from day-to-day so if consumers were not constantly monitoring this list for any changes, they could inadvertently purchase the recalled product. Also, even if they were monitoring the list closely, the list might not necessarily be accurate. In addition, some shoppers might not be able to remember exactly where they purchased a particular item.”

This is what FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg had to say about releasing retail distribution information in her introductory statement during a media teleconference on September 28, 2011:

“[C]onsumers can inquire of their retailers where cantaloupe came from, and retailers are prepared to provide that information if they are not already providing it to you in their stores.”

And, in replying to a reporter’s question about releasing retail distribution information, Dr. Hamburg added,

“I think it’s a lot more accurate for the consumer to actually ask their retailer in terms of the ability to get that information out and, of course, when you put stuff on the web site, not everybody accesses it. So I think it is an important message that if people are uncertain to ask their retailer. That’s how they’ll get the most accurate and most direct information.”

Am I crazy, or is FDA allowing the Grocery Manufacturers Association dictate Agency policy on release of retail distribution lists?

I repeat the rhetorical question with which Harry Hamil took exception two weeks ago:

When is FDA going to wake up, put the health and safety of American consumers ahead of industry interests, and provide us all with timely and complete information?

One thought on “FDA’s Puppet Master

  1. Phyllis,

    Thanks for following through on this and publicizing what you’ve learned. We, your readers, can now better understand the situation.

    I urge your readers to read our entire discussion about your earlier post so they will better understand the issue and see how open you were to the concerns I raised.

    It seems to me that the answers you’ve received so far support the points I earlier made.

    The FDA is doing the bidding of ONLY A PORTION of the food industry.

    I don’t know a single farmer, rancher or food producer who supports the FDA’s policy. And now we have one of the large grower’s most influential associations–Western Growers–stating it has taken no position on the matter.

    I urge you to reword your question to be, “When is FDA going to wake up, put the health and safety of American consumers ahead of the interests of certain big players in the American food system, and provide us all with timely and complete information?”

    The responses you’ve received (both active and passive) show the American food system is far from monolithic.

    Carefully focusing pointed questions like yours supports the diversity in the American food system needed for healthy discussion and change. It also reduces the misperceptions of American consumers so they are able to make wiser personal food safety decisions and more acutely influence the issues.

    Like

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