"According to a recent report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, food-borne illnesses in the U.S. cause more than 5,000 deaths each year." (Suddah 2010). Food and product recalls have become increasingly commonplace: "there were 214 food recalls in 2006, 247 in 2007 and 310 in 2008 according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)" (Jana 2009). From spinach to peanut butter to Spaghetti-Os to pet food, it is hard to think of a sphere of the consumer market that remains untouched by the taint of food recalls. There has been growing demand for greater stringency and oversight over the safety of the food system. Few ordinary Americans know, however, exactly how, why, and when recalls take place. It may surprise people to know that the FDA did not have the ability to issue mandatory recalls of products until the passage of the Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2010, which was only recently signed into law by President Obama.
The FDA is not solely responsible for food oversight in the U.S. "When the CDC gathers enough information to link an outbreak to a food product (for example, if everyone sickened by a particular strain of salmonella ate the same store-bought product), it contacts the Department of Agriculture (USDA) if it's meat or poultry or the FDA if it's anything else" (Suddah 2010). The FDA is responsible for the safety of 80% of the nation's food (Pollan & Schlosser 2010). The 'divided' nature of the monitoring system is one frequently-cited problem, in terms of its efficacy and structure.
Another problem is the difficulty of finding the source of the tainted items, particularly produce. "Sometimes it's near impossible to find out where an individual tomato came from. Bagged leafy greens are easy to trace back to a processor...tomatoes and other fruits are often sorted according to size, so there's a lot of co-mingling going on" (Suddah 2011). A further problem with 'raw' ingredients is the fact that many common forms of produce and other foodstuffs are used in such a wide array of products. For example, during the infamous 2009 recall of peanut butter, the main problem was that nearly 1,800 products from different manufacturers contained peanuts and peanut paste made by the Peanut Corporation of America. All the companies that used PCA had to recall their products. And many consumers were exposed to the salmonella-saturated peanut products because they did not know that the source of the peanut butter they were eating was PCA. Furthermore, many products contain peanuts besides peanut butter, and a consumer eating a product with a small amount of peanut paste (such as in a sauce), might not even question the source of what he or she was eating.
Until recently, it was the manufacturer's decision whether he or she wished to recall it. The FDA could only compel recalls of infant formulas. For all other food products the FDA could only send a requested notification. In the case of the PCA recall, the FDA was forced to seize the peanut butter trail mix of one unwilling company (Suddah 2010). "At the height of a nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands, spread via tainted peanut butter, the Westco Fruit and Nuts company refused for weeks to recall potentially contaminated products, despite requests from the FDA" (Pollan & Schlosser 2010). It was because of the intransigence of companies like Westco that the Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2010 gave the ability to issue involuntary recalls to the FDA (but not to the USDA, which oversees poultry and meat).
Despite new provisions for its ability to enact preventative screenings, the FDA's resources remain fairly limited, when one considers the sheer volume of food produced in America on a daily basis. Currently, the FDA employs only 450 people to do on-site inspections of 156,000 FDA-regulated firms. Only easily-contaminated foods like seafood are inspected annually (Suddah 2010). The lack of appropriate manpower, many say, is the reason that our food system seems to be growing demonstrably less safe. Improved technology, however, has made it easier to track the causes of contamination: the CDC is "able to track the genetic fingerprint of food-borne illnesses all over the nation, which…