Welcome to the strange new world of food recalls. As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reacts to public and congressional pressure for more stringent oversight of food safety, the process of recalling contaminated food has become far harsher, complicated, and expensive for food producers.
In fact, food recalls, once performed cooperatively by the FDA and food companies, now more often resemble drawn-out litigation between two suspicious adversaries. That’s chiefly due to three factors:
1) Changes in the regulatory process that have shifted the system from reaction to prevention;
2) The ascendance of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its meticulous pathogen-tracking and matching;
3) Constantly rising consumer expectations about the food supply.
Over the past 18 years, I’ve managed communications for more than 120 food recalls, from fresh spinach and frozen foods, to eggs and Blue Bell ice cream. In that time, I’ve seen companies destroyed and industries crippled over panics fueled by breathless reports of life and health-endangering recalls that once would have been conducted without undue alarm.
Don’t get me wrong. Some companies have been lax in their recalls, endangering consumers with their foot-dragging pace or through dilatory and dishonest negotiations with FDA inspectors.
But in an attempt to fix egregious cases, Congress passed the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2010, which for the first time granted the FDA mandatory recall power and put in place restrictive new regulations that inspectors now rigidly apply without flexibility or exceptions.
At the center of the regulatory change is the well-intentioned goal that the FDA, the USDA, and the CDC now must seek to prevent food recalls rather than manage them when they happen. That has led to a more zealous and unyielding application of the food safety regulations, which has caused mistrust and animosity from companies that once cooperatively complied with the FDA.
The FDA has also become more aggressive in posting damaging notices about its inspections as soon as they are complete, without warning companies or allowing them time to respond. More than a few of my clients have been devastated after the FDA posted its raw Form 483 inspection reports on its website, prompting hundreds of TV stations and newspapers to publish stories about the flies, dripping water pipes, mice, and butt-scratching employees its investigators observed on the premises.
Another new factor in the recall process is mission creep at the CDC. Thanks to modern gene technology, regulatory authorities can identify more foodborne illness outbreaks and request more recalls. This process also shines a brighter media spotlight on deficient companies.
But the CDC, which has no formal food regulatory authority, hasn’t stopped there. Instead, it often issues its own news releases in the middle of recalls, almost always surprising and aggravating the FDA and involved companies, while arousing the news media and frightening consumers.
In the most recent scare linking E. coli to Romaine lettuce from Yuma, Arizona, for instance, there has been no recall because the CDC and FDA have been unable to pinpoint the source or to verify all the reported illnesses. Nevertheless, the CDC issued a series of alarming public statements in mid-April advising consumers to stop eating all Romaine lettuce and to avoid eating packaged salads altogether.
But consumer pressure is the ultimate source of today’s more transparent and aggressive regulatory environment. One of the drivers behind FSMA was the fact that consumers became more knowledgeable about food recalls thanks to the Internet and social media. Outraged consumers, urged on by activists and reformers, demanded that Congress tighten food safety laws.
Since then, consumers, especially those under the age of 40, have become ever more sensitized about nutrition and food safety. Educated young consumers and their families insist on access to safe, abundant, affordable food that is supplied in any season and that is produced humanely and without any possible contamination. But most consumers today have little or no context for how food is actually farmed and processed — to everyone’s detriment.
When the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt and Congress created the FDA with the idea that policing food safety — even then — was such a daunting and expensive enterprise that a cooperative process between the government and companies seeking to protect their brands was the only sensible way to ensure food safety. Until the 2010 passage of FSMA, all amendments and regulatory changes to the original law — including the 1938 Food Drug and Cosmetic Act — recognized this fundamental idea.
Certainly, our government must remain diligent in its mission to make food safety a top priority. But common sense needs to be applied again, or the system will devolve into a cat-and-mouse game between food companies and regulators. In the meantime, all that food producers can do is comply with the law and hope for the best.
Gene Grabowski is partner at kglobal, a Washington D.C.-based communications firm. He is also a former journalist and head of communications for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. A recognized authority on crisis communications, Grabowski has helped manage more than 170 food and consumer product recalls in his career.