The advent of PulseNet in the late 1990s enabled more effective identification of outbreaks, even as many of them overlapped. The database brought to light the fact that many of the products sold in commerce nationwide contained ingredients that were at risk of contamination with dangerous pathogens. In many instances, these ingredients were in products from a single lot or batch and then sold by a single supplier to dozens of customers. From there, they were used in hundreds of products that would be distributed into thousands of retail locations.
Attend Food Safety Tech‘s Listeria Detection & Control Workshop | May 31–June 1 in St. Paul, MN | LEARN MOREFDA created the Reportable Food Registry (RFR) as a way to prevent the shipment of contaminated ingredients into the food supply. If received ingredients or products test positive for contaminants, the RFR requires that the company inform FDA. The agency uses the reports to take regulatory action against the original supplier and requires that all ingredients or products from all potentially affected lots be recalled from commerce. Because the RFR allows FDA to immediately begin tracking and containing ingredients testing positive for pathogens, its introduction in 2009 resulted in a significant spike in recalls.
Driven by the recalls triggered by PulseNet and the RFR, a national perception about an extremely unsafe U.S. food supply began to emerge. The public and media demanded that Congress take action, and so FSMA was born. The regulations require all FDA-regulated food companies to develop and implement written preventative control programs designed to control pathogens and other hazards in food. As a result, food companies will face heightened regulatory risk, scrutiny and exposure.
To further decrease the incidence of outbreaks and recalls, FDA is implementing regulatory enforcement initiatives that include sampling food products at retail for the presence of pathogens; conducting microbiological profiling of food processing facilities during routine inspections; and exploring criminal sanctions against companies that have been linked to positive samples in food products or production facilities associated with an outbreak or foodborne illness.
Microbiological Sampling in Retail
FDA is sampling products intended for human consumption as well as those for animal consumption. As testing continues at the retail level, the likelihood of more food products testing positive for the presence of pathogens is much higher. When positive product samples are found, FDA will take immediate action against the company that processed the product and require the company to recall all affected product. The agency will also demand access to the production facility at issue and conduct extensive environmental sampling, including from drains, floors, walls, production equipment, and finished products, in an effort to find the same strain as the sample testing positive at retail. If product or environmental samples test positive, FDA will perform genetic DNA testing on the isolates and compare the DNA fingerprints against those of the isolates collected from sick case patients in PulseNet over the past 15 years. If a match between the DNA fingerprint and an illness(es) in PulseNet is found, the agency will presume that these illnesses were caused by product originating from that particular facility. FDA will also demand access to all food production and microbiological testing records from previous months, or years, and critique those records.
Microbiological Sampling in Food Production Facilities
In accordance with FSMA, FDA will inspect all food production facilities (drains, floors, walls, food processing equipment, and finished products) that process high-risk ingredients or food products within the next three years (lower risk facilities will be inspected within the next five years). The agency is also performing extensive microbiological profiling of the food processing environment in all production facilities during routine inspections. If a positive sample is found, FDA may require the company to recall the affected product. It is expected that the level of sampling will intensity in the coming months and years as a result of FSMA mandates. And as the extensive microbiological sampling in food production facilities continues, FDA will perform genetic DNA testing on any positive samples collected, once again comparing the DNA fingerprints of samples against those of sick case patients over the last two decades. If a match is found, FDA will take the same course of action as in retail and presume all illnesses were caused by a food product originating from that specific facility. When that occurs, in addition to the potential recalls that may be required, the food companies at issue may become the target of a criminal investigation as well.
My next column will cite recent examples of FDA’s criminal offensive against food companies.