Reporting on Food Safety: OIG Faults FDA

Published on
December 15, 2009

Don't spit out your fruitcake, but are the ingredients in it safe? A couple of recent federal auditor reports suggest that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration needs to step up its efforts to protect the nation's food supply in two areas: tracing ingredients through the food supply chain and ensuring that food companies register with the federal agency.

In this post, I'll walk you through the two U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General reports and suggest some resources for covering food safety in your community. Each year, more than 300,000 Americans are hospitalized and 5,000 die after consuming contaminated foods and beverages, and it's the FDA's job to swiftly investigate and stop food poisoning outbreaks.

The first and most recent report finds that the FDA's Food Facility Registry is lacking, with companies either not registering or providing insufficient information. The Food Facility Registry is important: the FDA uses it to quickly notify companies in a food poisoning outbreak. Nearly half of 130 food companies the OIG examined provided incomplete or inaccurate information to the registry, and 7 of the companies didn't register at all. Many were missing emergency contact information, and half the managers interviewed by OIG inspectors didn't even know about the registry's requirements. In a test in 2006, the FDA also found some problems with its registry data. The Food Facility Registry is important: the FDA uses it to quickly notify companies in a food poisoning outbreak. As far as I can tell, the Registry isn't searchable by company, but you certainly could submit a FOIA request to learn more about specific companies in your area. A guide to which companies must register and which are exempted can be found here.

In a second, more important report released earlier this year, the OIG found that the FDA can't always easily trace how a food moves through the supply chain, such as tomatoes that are later made into salsa. The agency needs to be able to trace food ingredients backward and forward in the supply chain to investigate and quickly stop a food poisoning outbreak.  

Inspectors were able to completely trace five of 40 foods they tested: three cartons of eggs, a container of yogurt, and a bottle of water. For most of the rest, they were able to identify the facilities that "likely" handled them. They were completely unable to trace a tomato, a bag of ice, a bottle of fruit juice, and a different bottle.

Inspectors were stymied by incomplete records kept by food processors and manufacturers, as well as the mixing of ingredients from different farms at various stages of the food production process. Nearly 60 percent of the food facilities the OIG examined did not meet the FDA's recordkeeping requirements, which can seriously delay food-borne illness investigations.

The traceability report is a great resource for understanding how foods move through the production process and how the FDA goes about investigating an outbreak.

Here are some other resources to keep on hand next time you're covering a food-borne illness outbreak:

The trade publication Food Traceability Report offers facts and figures and expert sources.

Marler Clark, a law firm specializing in food-borne illness cases, has launched an online news site called Food Safety News, which it promises will be objective. The site looks interesting, but keep in mind its funders. (Disclosure: this firm has served as a source for some of my food safety stories.)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service has an interesting list of most-requested FOIA reports here.

Finally, the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT is offering a food safety bootcamp in March 2010. Even if you can't go, there are some interesting sources here.