Young and Hungry

How Well Do You Know the FDA?

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Here's a question that popped up today during a panel discussion on the "Next Era of Food Safety" at the Atlantic Food Summit at the Newseum: Does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have the authority to demand a recall when peanut butter or bagged spinach or jalapenos (or pick your favorite contaminated product) is deemed a threat to public health?

What's your answer?

The correct answer is no.  Many Americans don't realize this fact or, worse, don't believe it when told. "People don't even believe that the FDA doesn't have the authority," said Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety with the Pew Health Group, part of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

But once convinced of this fact, "89 percent of the people said that needs to be fixed," Olson added.

Congress is in the process of updating the antiquated, 1930s-era laws that govern the FDA. Everyone at the Summit seemed to be in agreement that the FDA needs more and better regulatory tools to do its job, whether the ability to recall products or require industry to cover the costs of more product testing.

Even the members of industry agreed. "We have no qualms with the FDA having the authority" to order recalls, said Alan Wilson, the chairman, president, and CEO of McCormick & Company. Wilson was part of the panel on the "Next Era of Food Safety."

Both government and industry apparently see the benefit of a better food safety system. It seems that when a contaminated product cripples one company's revenue stream, related companies suffer, too.

Stephen Sundlof, director for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition with the FDA, put some perspective on the agency's inability to order food recalls. Most companies comply, he said, when the FDA requests a product recall. But not all.

During the peanut butter crisis, Sundlof said, "We did have some companies that wouldn't recall their product."

The FDA had to send in federal marshals, Sundlof added. He didn't say on what grounds the marshals had permission to direct these private companies.

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