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Hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions - Developing a Comprehensive Response to Food and Safety

Location: Washington, DC

Hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions - Developing a Comprehensive Response to Food and Safety


SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI (D-AK): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Thank you, Secretary Leavitt. I, too, appreciate the efforts that have gone into this. When you think about those things that will just rattle a family, rattle a community, when the food that you have purchased at a grocery store, that you've brought home to feed your family, makes your family ill. It is -- it's the most invasive, frightening thing that can happen to a family. I shouldn't say most; it is a very invasive thing. It is a very frightening thing that happens.

And I think people look to the government and say, "What were you doing about it? What have you done to make sure that my family is safe?"

I wanted to ask you about the request in the plan to -- for the recall. The recall authority -- the mandatory recall authority would be used only when the current voluntary recall process fails to promptly remove foods that present a threat of serious harm to human or animals. Tell me what that really means in applications. You know, if you're a grocery store and you're selling spinach and somebody's gotten sick, you're going to pull that off, because you want your customers to keep coming back. What has to happen before there is a -- there's a step in and there's a mandatory recall?

SEC. LEAVITT: Senator, I'm going to confess to you that it was a surprise to me to find out that the FDA didn't have that authority. I assume they did. This goes back a couple of years now when I discovered this. Why? Because there's no indication that it's been a serious problem up to this point. When I talked to the FDA people about how it works, they tell me they say to the manufacturer or the processor, "We think your food is unsafe and we're prepared to make public notice that your food is unsafe and recommend that people not buy it." And the people routinely, then, recall their product. There may be circumstances where they refuse to do that.

SEN. MURKOWSKI: Have we got any of those where they just refused to take it off?

SEC. LEAVITT: I'll ask David Acheson to answer that, since he's involved every day in it.

DAVID ACHESON (Assistant Commissioner For Food Protection, Food And Drug Administration): Yeah. We've had several. In the last three years there's been two or three issues, particularly in the pet food industry, where companies have absolutely refused and we've had to use the strategy that the secretary's pointed out of alerting the public through the media.

SEN. MURKOWSKI: I guess I assumed that there was some authority in place as well.

Let me ask a question that is more local. We've had some situations where there's been seafood -- tainted seafood that's come over from China and probably from other imports as well. And for a market -- like the Alaska market where we rely on the reputation of a good and safe seafood market -- when we have the news come out that "This fish is tainted, stay away from it," often times the distinction may not be made as to where it's coming from. And then the consumer just says, well, the safest thing to do is stay away from all fish -- including the domestic product that we've worked hard to build that reputation.

How can we do a better job of making sure that the consumer is appropriately alerted, while at the same time we don't hamper or lose ground in promoting our own domestic products where we know we've got a level of safety?

SEC. LEAVITT: I'm going to ask David to comment on this, but you referenced something that I think is an important thing to acknowledge. Earlier we had some conversation about lettuce. If there's one incident regarding lettuce, then people assumed all lettuce is tainted and they quit eating it. If they have a situation with fish, then they assume fish is not good and they quit eating fish and that's a serious threat. And frankly, it's a big problem to those particular industries. And for that reason, those industries have begun to say: We need to have standards that assure that everyone is maintaining quality and building it into their product, because if there isn't, we all suffer.

So in the case of lettuce, for example, the produce growers got together and the processors and said, let's develop some standards. They then came to the FDA and said, here are standards that we think are extraordinarily high and would protect us as an industry by making certain that a few bad actors don't spoil the market for everyone. And FDA has now begun the process of incorporating those standards.

We think there are other areas where that could and should occur. For example, in fish where a standard can be developed in cooperating with the industry -- who very much wants what you've suggested not to happen -- and then use regulatory authority to incorporate that process and using certification to say, once we have a standard, let's get people we trust to make certain that every single processor is meeting that standard. And if they're not, we're going to watch them more closely than those that do.

David, do you want to comment on that?

MR. ACHESON: I think one of the key elements that you're getting at is the importance of communication and making sure that consumers really understand what's implicated in a food safety situation and get that information to them quickly. And it's not just consumers. We need to apply that down to the stores in the local retail levels so if there is a recalled product, it's removed expeditiously.

The corollary of that is that following the recall, as with spinach, is to let consumers know that the product is back on the market and it's safe to consume again. So again, it really boils down to communication and how to improve on that. And a part of the food protection plan is focused on communication around the response element.

SEN. MURKOWSKI: Communication by way of advertising?

MR. ACHESON: By all means. I mean, I think part of the strategy that we'll use at FDA is to use a new risk communications advisory committee that we've established and really address what are all the modes by which we can communicate with people -- media, TV, Internet. And as the secretary pointed out, part of that communication is in a recall situation of an individual store informing the consumer that the product that they may have purchased is a recalled item. So there's many, many modes of communication that we need to look at, because there's not a single one that's going to work.

SEN. MURKOWSKI: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.


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