One of the overlooked points about the Dole recall is the difference in approach between Canada and the U.S. in the way these things are handled.
First the whole thing was discovered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which seems to go around to retail warehouses performing random tests on product. The FDA doesn’t take on a similar role in the U.S. Instead the FDA waits for a company to call the FDA and say it has a problem.
Second is the difference in the way the Canadians respond to a “presumptive positive.” When we asked the FDA during the Metz Fresh recall what its position was on issuing a recall after a presumptive positive, we got this answer:
Ultimately, the company bares the responsibility for whether the product is safe and properly labeled. If individuals do become sick because of actions or inactions by the company, it is potentially liable for those decisions. If the problem is something very risky and someone rolls the dice and an outbreak occurs, that is a very serious issue.
Basically the FDA wanted to avoid involvement. By way of contrast when the Dole product in Canada was found to be presumptive positive the Canadians acted forcefully. They warned consumers not to eat the product:
HEALTH HAZARD ALERT
Dole brand Hearts Delight lettuce salad
may contain E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria
OTTAWA, September 16, 2007 — The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is warning the public not to consume Dole brand Hearts Delight lettuce salad (Ready to eat blend of romaine, green leaf & butter lettuce hearts) … because this product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 bacteria.
Yet look at what this means for consumer safety in the U.S. vis a vis Canada. There were 88 cases distributed in Canada — some were pulled at Loblaws as soon as the presumptive positive became known. Canada, however, was letting every consumer in Canada know the risk with its “Health Hazard Alert.” Therefore Consumers could A) decline to buy the product if it was on the shelf anywhere, B) stop eating any product already purchased, or C) treat symptoms of foodborne illness with more seriousness.
On the other hand, there were 755 cases of the same batch in the U.S. — but nothing was done to warn consumers.
One would think that on Friday night, when the presumptive positive came in, the FDA would have been demanding to know if any product from the same batch was distributed in the U.S. and issuing a health advisory similar to what was issued in Canada.
Sure every company bares responsibility for its own product, but that doesn’t explain why the FDA did not act more aggressively. Afterall, it is supposed to inform and safeguard consumers.
This passivity on the part of the FDA is putting a powerful weapon in the hands of enemies of the industry.