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USDA, FDA taken to task in report

The Denver Post has reported on a congressional report issued Wednesday which states that when hazardous food is discovered, neither the U.S. Department of Agriculture nor the Food and Drug Administration issues a deadline the manufacturers must meet for the recall.
Neither agency acts quickly enough to ensure that recall notices reach all parts of the food-distribution chain, especially grocery stores.
“Consumers may be vulnerable to serious illness, hospitalization and even death, in part, because of weaknesses in USDA’s and FDA’s programs for monitoring companies’ recalls of unsafe food,” according to the Government Accountability Office.


The GAO examined 20 total recalls conducted in 2003, 10 by each agency. The USDA on average took 38 days to ensure all distributors, stores and other outlets had received recall notices, and the FDA on average took 31 days. In both reviews, the notification time was longer than the shelf life for such foods as ground beef and bagged lettuce.
The USDA said it was implementing new procedures for recalls when the GAO was conducting its probe. Many of those were put in place after the 2002 record-breaking recall of 18.6 million pounds of tainted beef from the Greeley-based ConAgra plant, which is now operated by Swift & Co. That meat, contaminated with E. coli bacteria, was linked to 46 illnesses and one death. The GAO last October excoriated the USDA and ConAgra for how they handled that recall. Only 3 million pounds recalled ultimately was accounted for.
“We believe the system as it’s been modified now gives us even more assurances that recalled product can be recalled the quickest way possible,” said Steven Cohen, spokesman for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Cohen said the recall that occurred after the discovery of mad cow disease in one slaughtered Washington cow last December showed the system is working. More than half the customers who had received product from that cow were notified within 24 hours, he said. All of the product was ultimately found except for some sent to Asia.
But the GAO remained critical of that recall, saying it took too long and was overly complicated.
“USDA used distribution lists and shipping records to piece together where the recalled product was distributed,” the GAO said. “As a consequence, USDA could not quickly determine the scope of product distribution and had to take time conducting extra research using shipping invoices to determine which specific customers received the product.”
In its response to the GAO, the FDA rejected the idea that its policies led to slower-than- necessary recalls. It said the problem was more a bureaucratic one, that the agency could not provide dates by which a recall audit had been completed. The FDA also said it is more focused on getting bad food off the shelf than on completing the paperwork that marks a recall as closed.
The full text of the GAO report is available at www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-05-51.

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