COLUMBUS, Ohio – Only about half the meat and poultry recalled in the United States because of suspected health hazards between 1998 and 2002 was actually recovered by the manufacturers, according to a new study.
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 our food supply, said Neal Hooker, co-author of the study and assistant professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics 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.”
The new regulations have had some success – 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. But the bigger, faster recalls are also due to more sensitive, more rapid tests developed in recent years.
Hooker conducted the study with graduate student Ratapol Teratanavat. Their results appear in the April issue of the journal Food Control.
The new regulations, called the Pathogen Reduction (PR)/Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program, went into effect in 1998 at large plants (those with 500 or more employees); in 1999 at small plants (with 10 to 500 employees); and in 2000 at very small plants (with less than 10 employees). The program was designed to encourage meat-plant managers to examine their operations, identify the "critical control points" where risks to the food might occur, and put safety precautions in place to prevent potential hazards.
The system also requires detailed records to be kept about production and distribution, said Hooker, who also is a researcher with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. And that's where it seems to have had the most effect.
Hooker and Teratanavat collected recall information from the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service and other sources, using the Freedom of Information Act in some cases to gather data. They compared information about the class of the recalls (from Class I, the most serious, to Class III), as well as the type of hazard -- biological, physical or chemical. They also considered whether the product came from a large, small or very small plant.
They found that during this five-year 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 only 16 percent of the recalls.
"I was hoping we would see that the more hazardous cases -- Class I recalls that are microbiological in nature -- would be more quickly acted upon and have higher recovery rates," Hooker said. "But the answer was no."
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 less between 1994 and 1999 to 38 to 49 in 2000-2002. Likewise, recalls from very small plants jumped from seven or less before 1999 to 17 to 26 per year from 1999-2002.
Surprisingly, although the number and size of recalls have increased, Hooker said, their success rate in collecting product has not. On average, only about half of 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."
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 when it comes to recalls, allowing the government to more easily require a company to recall a food product.
"Right now, the USDA (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."
But simply allowing the USDA to initiate a recall doesn't go far enough, Hooker said.
"The success of recalls can get very complex. Our research says timing matters. 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, and that should be in the regulations."
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