The FDA is refusing to say which companies received recalled shipments of Egyptian strawberries contaminated with Hepatitis A last year — an act the agency defends as protecting companies’ trade secrets.
The shipments were sent by Egyptian producer/exporter International Company for Agricultural Production and Processing. On March 8, I asked the FDA for a list of businesses that had received the ICAPP strawberries, which were recalled late last year.
On March 16, the FDA denied the request, citing a “trade secret” exemption to the Freedom of Information Act — the agency considers confidential information regarding who supplies businesses with products, even if the products are subject to recall. Essentially, this means the FDA protects the companies it regulates, possibly to the detriment of public health.
The FDA’s protocol is at odds with how another government agency charged with ensuring food safety operates. The Washington Post notes that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service makes public customer information when poultry or meat products have been recalled. A rule published in 2008 makes FSIS customer lists releasable if “there is a reasonable probability that the use of the recalled product will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.”
The FDA’s recall system needs more transparency. An Office of the Inspector General audit report released last year shows that the FDA does not have policies in place to ensure that businesses comply with recall orders. In two instances, the OIG audit found that the FDA “did not initiate the recall of all potentially harmful products until 165 days and 81 days after FDA became aware of the potential contaminations.”
“As a result, consumers remained at risk of illness or death for several weeks after FDA was aware of a potentially hazardous food in the supply chain,” the report says.
When the FDA is reticent to warn the public about contaminated food, access to the names of businesses receiving recalled products becomes even more crucial — if the regulatory agency won’t alert the public, the news media should. I plan on appealing the decision, but I’m afraid the agency’s trade secret standard won’t change until it’s pursued through litigation.