Dangerous food potentially stays on shelves too long because of ineffective recalls, a congressional watchdog agency warns.
The McClatchy Washington Bureau reports less than half of the recalled food studied was actually returned or destroyed, the Government Accountability Office noted in its new study. Moreover, federal officials can’t issue mandatory recall orders for food – a power other agencies have over dangerous toys or medical devices.
“Consumers may be vulnerable to serious illness, hospitalization, and even death, in part, because of weaknesses in (federal) programs for monitoring companies’ recalls of unsafe food,” the GAO said.
Even so, some of the proposed solutions might cause gagging among California’s politically attuned food processors. In particular, the GAO is urging Congress to grant the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration the authority to flat-out order food recalls.

“Historically, we have tended to shy away from mandatory recalls,” Ed Yates, president of the Sacramento-based California League of Food Processors, said Friday. “However, we are taking up that question again.” Citing the increasing frequency of food recalls, Yates said the industry has now been asked by state officials to re-evaluate whether some mandatory recall authority might be appropriate.
“There may be a limited number of circumstances where it might be warranted,” Yates said.
Undeniably, food recalls are getting more common. Last year, 36 million pounds of meat and poultry were recalled, compared to about 6 million pounds in 1988. Investigators identified a total of 373 food recalls in 2003. Some were tragic. Two large food recalls last year were associated with nearly 100 hospitalizations or serious illnesses, eight deaths and three miscarriages, the GAO noted.
Food recalls are handled differently than recalls of other products. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, for instance, can compel manufacturers to recall dangerous products. With the exception of baby formula, by contrast, food recalls are voluntary.
Different foods are also handled by different agencies. The Agriculture Department oversees recalls of meat, poultry and eggs. The Food and Drug Administration oversees recalls of other foods, as in the May recall of several million packages of raw almonds produced by the Kern County-based Paramount Farms.
“Weaknesses in these agencies’ systems for monitoring food recalls heighten the risk that unsafe food will remain in the food supply and ultimately be consumed,” the GAO cautioned.
In cases reviewed by investigators, the federal agencies took more than a month to ensure that all distributors and stores had received the recall notices.
The agencies monitor food recalls, in part, by consolidating information about them and informing consumers. Earlier this month, for instance, the government’s www.recalls.gov web site noted the voluntary recall of 4,800 packages of potentially mislabeled Whole Meal Enchilada with Spanish Rice and Beans, produced by the Santa Rosa-based Amy’s Kitchen.
“Most of the recalls have to do with label misstatements,” Yates said, adding that, “label requirements are pretty strict.”
The agencies also monitor recalls by verifying that the food has been returned or destroyed. The GAO examined 20 food recalls from last year to see how well the job was being done; the only California-based case was the recall of 5,622 cases of fresh-cut bagged lettuce from Salinas, potentially contaminated with listeria.
Investigators found federal officials “do not know how promptly and completely companies are carrying out recalls.” The GAO analysis also concluded that only 36 percent of Agriculture Department-regulated food had been recovered following a recall, and only 38 percent of FDA-regulated food.
“Recovering perishable foods is particularly challenging because they may be subject to recall after the product’s shelf life has passed,” the GAO noted.
The Agriculture Department termed some of the GAO’s findings as “alarmist,” and questioned whether mandatory recalls would actually lead to longer delays because of appeals. Overall, though, the agency said most problems identified would be addressed by new procedural changes instituted in May.
In the soon-to-expire 108th Congress, lawmakers introduced several bills to grant mandatory recall authority over food; one bill, for instance, would specifically grant recall authority over food used in school lunch programs.
None of these bills attracted any sponsors from the Central Valley, and none received a congressional hearing.