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The following Guest Blog first appeared on barfblog.com, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author, Doug Powell.

Going Public: there may be some rules but FDA says they’re a secret

by Dr. Douglas Powell

The same agencies that tout a science-based approach to foodborne illness aren’t so good at one of the 3 legs of the risk analysis stool – risk communication.

It gets lots of pandering, but almost all government agencies and industry groups, regardless of geography, are really bad at risk communication when performance is stacked up against what has been proven to work (not very much).

When to go public about health warnings – like potential outbreaks of foodborne disease – remains contentious. And no one is willing to come clean about it and say, this is when we go public and why. Or at least write it down. Bureaucrat 101 – write it down, have to do it; so don’t write it down.

I understand the flexibility public health types require to do their jobs effectively, but much of the public outrage surrounding various outbreaks – salmonella in tomatoes/jalapenos, 2008, listeria in Maple Leaf deli meats, 2008, the various leafy green recalls and outbreaks of 2010, 2011, 2012, the 1996 outbreak of cyclospora linked to Guatemalan raspberries, and the delay in clamping down on Iowa eggs – can be traced to screw ups in going public.

It’s long been a tenet of risk communication that it is better to go early with public information rather than later. People can handle all kinds of information, especially when they are informed in an honest and forthright manner.

So it’s of no surprise that the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) couldn’t find anyone within the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to say, this is how we decide when to go public.

“FDA has interim internal procedures describing the steps it will take to order a food recall, but these procedures have not been made public, and the agency has not provided information on when they will be. Federal internal control standards call for federal agencies to clearly document
policies, procedures, techniques, and mechanisms for implementing management directives and to make that documentation readily available for examination.”

“Similarly, FDA officials told us that they have not decided whether they will issue regulations or industry guidance to clarify for the public FDA’s procedures for ordering food recalls and that FSMA has no requirement to do so. Federal internal control standards direct federal agencies to
ensure adequate means of communicating with and obtaining information from external stakeholders who may have a significant impact on the agency achieving its goals.

“About a week-and-a-half before our closing meeting, FDA officials provided us interim internal procedures for ordering recalls of food. These interim procedures include detailed information on such topics as which officials are to be involved in an ordered food recall decision and what methods and timelines FDA officials will use to communicate with companies involved in such a recall. The interim procedures also state that FDA is to incorporate procedures into the
agency’s publicly available Regulatory Procedures Manual and other FDA documents. FDA officials have not, however, provided timelines on when they expect to make procedures publicly available.”

And it goes on like that for 61 pages.

GAO recommends, among other things, that FDA issue regulations or industry guidance to clarify its ordered food recall process and implement recommendations from others to address FDA communication challenges in advising the public about food recalls and outbreaks. The agency neither agreed nor disagreed with GAO’s recommendations but cited ongoing agency actions that are to address most recommendations.

To strengthen FDA’s process for ordering recalls, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Commissioner of FDA to document FDA’s process for ordering food recalls in regulations or industry guidance to include information on how the agency will weigh evidence on whether a recall is necessary.

To address FDA’s communication challenges in advising the public about food recalls and outbreaks, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Commissioner of FDA to implement recommendations from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council to develop, in conjunction with other federal agencies, a coordinated plan for crisis communications.

To address FDA’s communication challenges in advising the public about food recalls and outbreaks, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Commissioner of FDA to implement recommendations from FDA’s risk communication committee to develop a policy for communications during emerging events.

The full report is available at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-589.

About the author: Dr. Douglas Powell is a professor of food safety at Kansas State University and the publisher of barfblog.com. Powell is passionate about food, has five daughters, and is an OK goaltender in pickup hockey.
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