The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have an efficient food recall initiation process, leaving the nation at risk of disease and death, according to a government watchdog in its recent review of the agency’s food safety program.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services conducted a review of 30 recalls from 2012 to 2015 and released its findings on Wednesday. These include a company pulling affected products off the shelf 165 days after the FDA knew of the tainted goods.

“FDA did not have policies and procedures to ensure that firms or responsible parties initiated voluntary food recalls promptly,” the report stated, warning of consumers’ illness and death risk for weeks after the agency first becomes aware of a likely hazardous product on the market.

The OIG called for steps to tackle the problem right away, including establishing set timeframes for the FDA to request companies to voluntarily recall their products.

In a Reuters report, Connecticut representative Rosa DeLauro called it “mind-boggling” for the FDA to be lacking in policies that guarantee swift voluntary recalls. She echoed that the delays endanger consumers’ life and well-being.

Asserting they are “totally committed” to food safety, FDA officials Stephen Ostroff and Howard Sklamberg dubbed the report findings “unacceptable.”

“[I]n those three years, the FDA worked with companies to successfully bring about thousands of recalls to keep unsafe food out of the market and homes of consumers with an average recall initiation time of less than a week,” they explained in a blog post.

According to them, intricate procedures around recall events make it hard for their agency to set a single timeline that applies to all situations. Recalls must also be anchored on scientific proof from an outbreak investigation, they added.

The FDA has newly created the Strategic Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (SCORE) team, a decision-making body to oversee outbreak investigations, as well as adopted whole genome sequencing back in 2014 to determine the genetic nature of foodborne pathogens.

Just last May, a multi-state listeria outbreak that sickened eight individuals was confirmed to be tied to frozen vegetables and fruits, prompting the recall of 358 different products.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the eight victims from California, Maryland and Washington were infected with Listeria monocytogenes strains in cases documented from September 2013 to March this year. It was only recently that the culprit was pinpointed, prompting the recall.

Photo: Eddie Welker | Flickr

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