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FDA’s Secrecy Causes Retailers To Overreact

Our piece, Freshway’s Traceability System Worked Like A Charm: FDA And Buyers Don’t Care, dealt with Freshway Foods’ recent recall and the fact that its traceability system did not stop government from imposing a broader recall and customers from throwing everything out. One important person on the buy-side sent this note:

I regularly read your comments and most of the time agree with your logic. No doubt that the FDA is always using big guns for small battles without worrying too much about collateral damage.

The part of their actions which worries me even more is that their actions are not public; we never know anything about what they do, what their findings are and more importantly what the corrective actions will be. Are those once-banned cantaloupes safe now?

Thus, as a part of a huge organization dealing with recalls daily, I would not agree with your statement that customers are lacking knowledge or training in placing recalled product on hold, or disposing of affected product only. The question is, how do we know what the difference between “everything” and “only” is, without somebody saying what was the “only” caused by? And who can guarantee that?

Buyers are probably scared, because this problem could have been caused by Yuma lettuce, but it could have easily been the result of cross contamination in one of processing facilities, or transportation as well.

The only way to prevent actions of this kind is for the FDA to step up in situations like this and say: “Yes, there was the problem, we discovered it and eliminated by following corrective actions…”

Until that happens, customers will “remove everything from this supplier, recalled or not, from Arizona or not” and they should not be blamed for that.

— Dan Lasic, MS, MPH, REHS
Quality Assurance Manager
Compass Group NAD
Charlotte, North Carolina

We think Dan is correct, although he may underestimate a bit the importance to legal departments of minimizing the chance for an employee error. It is one thing for a retailer to sell a product that sickens someone; it is a difference in kind, not degree, to sell a product — that has been recalled — and then see someone get sick.

We also think the decision to throw everything out is a much easier one to make when one can charge the cost to someone else. Whatever the arguments, we can’t help but think that product disposals would be more circumspect if they cost the buyers money.

But Dan is correct; the FDA is ridiculously opaque in an age of transparency.

It doesn’t give the kind of “all clear” that the industry needs. In fact, even when the great spinach crisis of 2006 was brought to a close, the FDA didn’t give an ”all clear.” The best it could muster: The spinach was as safe as it ever was. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

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