- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration wants to start making retailer information available in the case of some food recalls, according to a statement from Commissioner Scott Gottlieb on Wednesday. In situations where food may not be clearly identified as part of a recall and people or animals have a high risk of illness, Gottlieb wrote that providing specific retailer information could help consumers avoid products they should not be buying, or quickly take action if they consumed a certain product.
- Store-level details have never previously been disclosed in cases of recalls because supply chain information is considered confidential. FDA released draft guidance on Wednesday outlining when and how retailer information can be publicized.
- "Identifying retail locations can be complex. It can involve obtaining information from multiple parts of the supply chain, including the recalling company and intermediate distributors," Gottlieb wrote. "But we also know this information can be very important to consumers. Knowing where a recalled product was sold during the most dangerous food recalls can be the difference between a consumer going to the hospital or not."
Under Commissioner Gottlieb, the FDA has made several progressive and long-talked-about changes in food safety, labeling and regulatory measures. This is another, and it seems to be a common-sense correction in food recall policy.
Manufacturers traditionally carried the heaviest part of the notification burden in cases of food recalls, sharing detailed information on the products, packaging, manufacturing plant and lot numbers that may be problematic. But even the most widespread notification often left consumers wondering if they'd purchased the recalled product. It also left public safety critics wondering if the system had something to hide, since it would not tell them where the products were sold.
Grocery stores do their role in keeping recalled products from consumers, as well. When notified of a recall, grocery stores pull product from shelves — generally in two hours or less, say experts — and block the product's UPC code so it won't scan at the register. Loyalty card data can also be used to track down consumers who bought recalled items. But there are products that are sold for days before contamination is reported, and others have no standard or factory-level packaging. Bulk items, produce, and store-made goods fit into this category.
This summer, a salmonella outbreak linked to precut melons that were distributed to several stores sickened 77 people in 22 states. The contaminated melons came from a single processing facility, but it was difficult for ordinary consumers to tell if they'd purchased something unsafe. In this case, FDA did make retailer information available, which helped consumers better know their risks — and undoubtedly saved many pounds of safe precut fruit from being discarded. Gottlieb said in Wednesday's statement that the draft guidance better explains this procedure for putting retailer information in the public domain in the future.
Food safety advocates, who have long pushed for this kind of information to be made public, cheered Gottlieb's announcement.
"As far as retailers and manufacturers, whatever additional paperwork 'burden' this new policy may pose, it is far outweighed by the public health benefit," said Sandra Eskin, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Safe Food Project, in an email to Food Dive.
Aside from the consumer safety aspect, the policy makes sense from a transparency standpoint. Gottlieb has been publicly committed to transparency throughout the food and food safety system — a useful stance when consumers care deeply about the ability to learn everything about what they eat. According to a Nielsen study, two-thirds of consumers want to know everything that is in the food they buy. And at a time when information about the farmers who grew the grains that made a bag of pretzels is available with a few clicks of a mouse, consumers may find it hard to swallow that seemingly basic information about whether products they bought are safe is not available for public consumption.
But what do retailers think? In the past, grocers have fought to keep from being named. Heather Garlich, the Food Marketing Institute's vice president of media and public relations, said in an email to Food Dive that FMI looks forward to participating in the comment period for the draft regulations.
"No matter the root cause of a recall, food retailers take them seriously and act swiftly to remove the questioned product from commerce and alert their customers. Grocers work to ensure that the foods are taken care of while they are in their control," she wrote.