Government food officials are often sloppy and inattentive in their efforts to ensure that contaminated foods from abroad are withdrawn promptly and completely from the nation’s food supply, according to government investigators.
In an audit of 17 recalls, investigators found that the Food and Drug Administration often failed to follow its own rules in removing dangerous imported foods from the market, according to Daniel R. Levinson, inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services. The products included cantaloupes from Honduras contaminated with salmonella, frozen mussel meat from New Zealand infected with listeria and frozen fish from Korea that contained the bacterium that causes botulism.
"It's further evidence to suggest that Americans need to start buying food locally from community farms," said food safety specialist Lindsey
Kelley. "We can no longer rely on the F.D.A. to keep Americans safe and we shouldn't even be consuming food products from thousands of miles away in the first place."
In one case, more than three months passed from the time the F.D.A. became aware of the contamination to the time a recall was initiated. In another case, the lag was nearly a month. In 13 of the 17 cases, the companies that supplied the tainted goods failed to provide accurate or complete information to their customers so that the products could be withdrawn completely, the audit found.
The investigation found that the government had not followed up with any vigor to ensure that contaminated food imports were withdrawn from the food chain completely. In 14 of the 17 cases, the F.D.A. failed to conduct inspections or obtain complete information about the contaminated products. In five of the cases, the F.D.A. never conducted an audit to make sure the recalls had been conducted at all. In 12 of the cases, the agency’s audit of the recalls was belated and incomplete. And in 13 of the 17 recalls, the agency never witnessed the disposal of the contaminated foods or obtained the required documentation to show that the products had been thrown out.
Audits of the F.D.A.’s oversight of the nation’s food system routinely find the agency’s efforts wanting, in part, the agency says, because its budget for such activities has long been inadequate. And although a new food safety law gave the agency extra supervisory powers, it is not clear how much it will be able to do, given that House Republicans have proposed cutting its budget for protective measures.
On Monday, the F.D.A. released a report suggesting ways to cope with an increasing flood of imported foods, drugs and medical devices. The report recommended that the F.D.A. cooperate with regulators in other countries to ensure safety.