There are serious flaws in a US Government system to help federal agencies pinpoint plants implicated in outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, according to new report.
The study from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that almost half of 130 food facilities surveyed had failed to provide accurate information to a Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) register used as a vital information source during food emergencies.
Some 48 per cent of food plants had either failed to provide accurate information when they first registered or did not notify the FDA of changes to the facility as required, the research from the independent watchdog revealed. A further seven per cent of the plants questioned either had not registered at all or failed to cancel their registration with the FDA.
The register was set up under the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Act 2002 to allow quick tracebacks when contaminated food reaches consumers. Under the law, food companies are obliged to provide the FDA with a raft of contact details regarding each facility, the parent company and the owners. The information is stored in the FDA Unified Registration and Listing System.
The HHS report said that part of the problem was that FDA regulations do not require the register to include certain information that could be needed in an emergency. Almost a quarter of the plants failed to give a valid emergency contact number or physical address for contacting the parent company, owner or operator – since this data was optional.
“This lack of information may hamper the FDA’s ability to contact food facilities in an emergency,” said the report.
It further found that over half of the managers at plants were ignorant of the register’s requirements.
Wholesale changes to the system were needed, urged the HHS, as it called for the FDA to tighten up its information gathering and verification procedures. It also called on the agency to seek statutory authority to force food plants to re-register regularly and proposed introducing a registration fee to deter firms from submitting multiple registrations.
The agency should be able to impose civil penalties against plants that either fail to register or give inaccurate information, added the report authors. The FDA should also campaign to make some of the optional information mandatory - such as a named contact person in an emergency. It should also work with industry players to raise awareness of the register and its requirements.
One senator who has campaigned to strengthen food safety has said the findings of the report were “appalling.”
"The weaknesses in our food safety system that are highlighted in the report are unacceptable," said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn, who chairs the House spending panel that oversees the FDA budget. "Congress should pass comprehensive food safety legislation to give FDA the statutory authority it needs."
The HHS noted the FDA had generally agreed with its findings and conceded the survey confirmed problems the agency had encountered. The agency agreed with the need for more statutory powers. It said it had already begun putting in place action to tackle the issues raised in the report.