Lettuce Beware! Communications on FDA and Food Safety – 2010 versus 2008

I ate a salad for lunch yesterday.  Only today did I remember that I read in the Washington Post yesterday that there is a recall underway for bagged romaine lettuce and that the recall is expanding per the FDA.  I did not make my own salad from the farmer's market lettuce I got this weekend, I bought it from one of those wonderful new fast food salad places.  It was very good.  But now I had to wonder – was it safe?  Had I put my life at risk to embrace a low fat, high fiber healthy lunch?

It isn't a question we like to ask ourselves, about our food and the risk associated with it.  And for the FDA, there is a balancing act between acting, under-reacting and over-reacting.  It is a delicate balance.  Everyone remembers the tortuous summer of the tomato recall in 2008.  Then, FDA's image suffered a great deal as weeks after a salmonella outbreak among tomatoes went by, during which crops were destroyed, while federal authorities searched for the culprit.  Afterwards, I was fortunate enough to have a discussion and podcast with the then Assistant Commissioner for Food Safety at FDA, David Acheson, about the process that FDA goes through when there is a food-borne outbreak.  

Searching for the source of an outbreak is a long and laborious process and not as easy as one might think.  Produce growers, large and small, many times will have their produce pooled as it makes its way to market, making traceability difficult.   There is genetic testing that has to be done on the actual contaminant.  There is the alert that something is wrong and the follow up by agencies, all of which takes considerable time.  Throughout the tomato recall of 2008, the FDA was heavily criticized in the media and in Congress.  

Now in 2010, there is a lettuce recall that has begun, and today it was announced that the recall is expanding and the culprit is not salmonella, but e-coli which can cause serious illness.  At least 19 people are reported ill and 10 more probably cases have yet to be confirmed, according to reporting in the Washington Post.  It is conventional wisdom that for every case reported, there are probably several cases that have not been reported on top of that.  The recall now spans 23 states.  

There are plenty of people watching and waiting to see how this plays out.  And there is also legislation waiting – S.510 Food Safety Modernization Act.  It is a bill that already had the wind at its back, and that is only likely to pick up now. 

Since 2008, the FDA has a lot of new leadership in place.  Obviously the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner -but Dr. David Acheson has left the agency as has Dr. Stephen Sundlof, who served as the head of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN).  There is also a new Deputy Commissioner for Foods .

As this recall unfolds, and should it continue to expand, communications will be key for FDA to avoid the pitfalls of 2008, meaning that each and every step, as well as the process, should be spelled out for the public and for policymakers well ahead of time.  The agency should not expect people to connect the dots on how this is done.  And moreover, the agency might do well to begin thinking about how they can articulate how their approach to the issue has improved since 2008 in order to begin constructing a new image when it comes to food recalls.  

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