Americans Are Holding the FDA Responsible for Inadequate Food Recall Systems
As the current administration debates the future of agencies responsible for food safety, Politico gives voice to those whose lives have changed thanks to foodborne illnesses.
After a recent proposal by President Trump for a plan to consolidate all federal food safety agencies under the USDA, made headlines, a new Politico investigation looked at claims that the Food and Drug Administration have been ineffective in protecting the American public adequately from foodborne illness
The investigation includes testimony from Peter Ebb, a 59-year-old lawyer living in Boston who fell victim to E. coli poisoning after eating contaminated soy nut butter. Politico recounts his story, which began when Amazon (where he purchased the product) alerted him of an FDA-issued warning for the contaminated product, which had reportedly been on the market for more than two months.
The FDA's warning didn't convince Ebb on the severity of the situation ("Most healthy adults can recover completely within a week," the email read), but a week later, Ebb was admitted to the hospital and treated for a serious form of kidney failure known as hemolytic uremic syndrome—the same rare condition linked to the recent romaine lettuce-fueled outbreak.
Despite surviving the sickness, Ebb's life has changed dramatically—he is unable to hold a full-time job and can barely climb the stairs, Politico reports. He's one of 18 other plaintiffs who have filed claims against the companies responsible for the contamination and is trying to bring attention to what he considers the "inadequacy" of the nation's recall system.
In 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a limited report of an audit into the FDA's recall process. The full report, released in December 2017, said the agency's recall system is neither efficient or effective enough to ensure the safety of American consumers, mostly due to the fact that the FDA is just too slow to issue recalls in the first place.
“If I had heard about the problem even one week earlier and stopped then, I might have been able to avoid the disease completely, and life today would be very different,” Ebb told Politico.
The first victim of the I.M. Healthy SoyNut Butter outbreak became ill on January 4, 2017. But two months passed before a formal recall notice was posted, on March 3 of that year. And the posting was updated several times up until March 10. Politico reports that the FDA uses a collection of labs across the country to identify the outbreak and pinpoint where it started—which, in this case, occurred on February 22. And then it took another nine days before the FDA could persuade the product's manufacturer to voluntarily recall the product. This was actually relatively fast—in an infamous case from 2014, it took a nut butter manufacturer 165 days to initiate a voluntary recall.
Ebb, and the other victims stepping forward, told Politico that they hold the FDA responsible for using their government-issued power to force a recall sooner—which could have helped many avoided illness altogether. Furthermore, in this case, the FDA failed to notify consumers where exactly the items were sold, which included online resellers like Amazon.
But perhaps the biggest issue is the fact that the contaminated products were still available—even after the recall was issued. Linda Harris, a food-safety microbiologist for the University of California at Davis who has researched this case specifically, told Politico that she was able to find the affected "SoyNut" butter in stores in September 2017, five months after the recall was issued.
The FDA has publicly stated they are updating their procedures for better results—in congressional hearings earlier this year, agency officials proposed a new rule to alert the public to dangers even before voluntary recalls are announced. Other ideas tossed around included a new database to help identify contaminated products and passing legislation to require manufacturers to issue public notices more quickly than ever before.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who stepped into his role after the soy butter E. coli outbreak, told Politico in a statement that the FDA is in the middle of overhauling current policies.
“The FDA is taking several policy steps this year as part of a broader action plan to further improve our oversight of food safety, and ensure that all food recalls are initiated, overseen, and completed quickly and effectively to best protect consumers," Gottlieb wrote. "These and other efforts will increase transparency, empower consumers and ultimately lead to fewer potential recall situations with less people getting sick from contaminated food.”
It remains to be seen if the FDA has truly made any improvements to its recall system—earlier this year, the United States was wracked by one of the worst E. coli outbreaks in over a decade. The outbreak killed five people and sickened more than 200. It took all three federal agencies more than four months to discover where exactly the outbreak came from—something that politicians in Washington will consider when the White House presents its proposal to Congress later this year.
For more on Ebb's story and the stories of other victims of widespread foodborne illnesses, you can read Politico's full feature right here.