The Food and Drug Administration did not force a recall of tainted peanut butter that caused salmonella poisoning in 14 people until 165 days after confirming the contamination, the agency's watchdog said in report released Thursday.
And in a similarly alarming case, it took the government 81 days to recall a variety of cheese products made by a Virginia firm -- after eight people had fallen ill from a bacteria in the food and a baby died.
This lax approach to food safety put consumers "at risk of illness or death" after testing showed the food was potentially hazardous, investigators for Inspector General Daniel Levinson at the Department of Health and Human Services, the FDA's parent agency, wrote in a rare urgent warning. The "early alert" called the issue a "significant matter" that "requires FDA's immediate attention."
The watchdog's report blamed loose or nonexistent policies for how and when the FDA does recalls when commercial food has made people sick. And it noted that despite new powers the agency got in 2011 to force companies to recall dangerous products -- rather than ask them to act voluntarily --and new technology that allows scientists to identify pathogens faster, the government is still endangering the public by dragging out its investigations.
"FDA did not have an efficient and effective food recall initiation process that helps insure the safety of the Nation's food supply," said the short, but alarming report. "FDA's policies and procedures did not instruct its recall staff to prescribe to the firms a time and a manner in which to initiate the voluntary recall."
The FDA's leading food safety official told The Associated Press that the cases investigators found were "outliers" and a "very selective example" of recalls that did not move forward more quickly.
But the official, Deputy Commissioner Stephen Ostroff, said the agency has started a more rigorous review process for food recalls that seem to be moving too slowly.
"That way we will be able to take action much more quickly in circumstances where there seems to be some reluctance at the firm," he told the AP.
The FDA has for years relied on voluntary recalls for companies to remove tainted products from supermarket shelves. But a broad food safety law Congress passed four years ago gives federal officials authority to order recalls in cases where bad food can cause serious harm. Investigators said these powers have rarely been used.
The nut butter and cheese cases occurred in 2014 and are part of an ongoing review by investigators of 30 recalls from 2012 to 2015.
In the first case, nSpired Natural Foods voluntarily recalled tainted peanut and almond butters, but that was 165 days after the FDA first found salmonella in samples from one of the company's plants. The agency also did more precise testing using DNA mapping that confirmed its initial conclusions. But the butters were not pulled from the market for three more months, investigators found.
Salmonella is a bacterial illness that can cause fever, cramps, diarrhea and other symptoms, particularly in people with compromised immune systems.
In the second case, Oasis Brands recalled several tainted cheese products in 2014. But they were pulled almost three months after the state agriculture department in Virginia told the FDA that it had discovered listeria, a bacteria that causes flu-like symptoms and is dangerous for pregnant women, in food samples.
The FDA sent investigators to the company's manufacturing plant for further testing twice during the 81 day-delay, and found contamination both times.
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