Food safety regulations inadequate

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COLUMBUS – Only about half the meat and poultry recalled in the United States between 1998 and 2002 was actually recovered by the manufacturers.

This and other results suggest new federal food safety regulations that took effect in the late 1990s have not done enough to ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply, said Neal Hooker, co-author of the new study and ag economist at Ohio State University.

“I was hoping that with the new regulations we would have higher recovery rates, but that hasn’t happened,” Hooker said. “Manufacturers should have a better success rate, but they don’t.”

What’s working. The new regulations have had some success, Hooker said. There has been a large increase in the number of recalls and the size of those recalls.

“The food supply is probably safer, but only because recalls are triggered more often and more quickly, not because plants are preventing problems before they occur,” he said.

Bigger, faster recalls also are due to more sensitive, more rapid tests developed in recent years, Hooker said. The new federal food safety regulations are called the Pathogen Reduction (PR)/Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program.

The regulations went into effect in 1998 for plants with 500 or more employees; in 1999 for plants with 10 to 500 employees; and in 2000 for plants with fewer than 10 employees.

The federal program was designed to encourage meat plant managers to examine their operations, identify “critical control points” where risks to food might occur and put safety precautions in place to prevent potential hazards.

Records help. The regulations also require food manufacturers to keep detailed records on production and distribution, Hooker said.

And that’s where the new guidelines seem to have had the greatest impact.

The researchers found that during the five-year study period, 74 percent of the recalls were classified as Class I, the most serious threat to human health. That didn’t change after the new rules went into effect, Hooker said.

Additionally, 57 percent of the recalls resulted from some form of bacterial problem, such as Escheria coli or Listeria monocytogenes contamination.

Physical hazards, in which a foreign object is found in a food product, accounted for 16 percent of the recalls.

Smaller plants. The number of large plants recalling products has been relatively stable over the years, with fewer than 20 cases per year. But recalls from small plants has increased from 29 or fewer between 1994 and 1999 to between 38 and 49 from 2000-2002.

Likewise, recalls from the smallest plants jumped from seven or fewer before 1999 to between 17 and 26 per year from 1999-2002.

Surprisingly, although the number and size of recalls have increased, the success rate in collecting product has not, Hooker said.

On average, only about half the products that are recalled are actually recovered from the market, and few clear patterns emerged on whether the rate of recovery increased or decreased during the period studied.

“The smallest plants seem to do the best job,” Hooker said. “I think it’s because they have simpler distribution systems and know their customers better, and will accept more product than was actually included in a recall just for good customer relations.”

Policy implications. Hooker hopes policy-makers can use the study in examining current food safety laws.

Last year, the National Academy of Sciences recommended more stringent regulations on recalls, allowing the government to more easily require a company to recall a food product.

“Right now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture just asks a company if it made contact with retail outlets which distributed a product,” Hooker said. “There’s very little follow-up.

“If a product is already in the grocery stores and the stores don’t put up big signs about the potential hazard, people might not get the message.”

Not enough. But simply allowing the USDA to initiate a recall doesn’t go far enough, Hooker said.

“Our research says timing matters,” Hooker said. “A recall has to be managed in a proper way to get product out of the marketplace.

“And if we ever have a major bioterrorism threat linked to the food supply, we should have the system in place that would create the sense of urgency to prevent problems.

“You want to be able to move very, very quickly,” Hooker emphasized.

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