Twice this year, product recalls — first of over-the-counter children's medicines and now of eggs — have affected millions of American households. The nation's food and drug safety systems clearly are inadequate to ensure that vast quantities of potentially hazardous products do not reach the marketplace. With a U.S. Justice Department probe of a salmonella outbreak related to eggs now under way, Congress must act to give the Food and Drug Administration new powers to take preventive measures, hold manufacturers accountable and keep tainted products off store shelves. The Senate can take a big step in that direction by passing the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, a bill that has languished in that chamber while the House passed similar legislation a year ago.
The recent recall of more than half a billion eggs that could be tainted with salmonella bacteria has illustrated the ways the current system of controls is outdated and insufficient. Consolidation has led to huge agricultural operations such as the two Iowa egg producers, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, implicated in almost 1,500 cases of food poisoning. But despite the capacity of such operations to sicken large numbers of people, regulation of the egg producers was sorely lacking when it came to food safety. The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the health of the chickens, but not the safety of the eggs or the procedures used to process the eggs and get them to market. The FDA is responsible for the safety of whole eggs, but lacks authority to inspect producers' records and order recalls of products suspected of making people sick.
The FDA can ask food and drug manufacturers to recall suspect products but cannot force them to do so. The risk of that weak-kneed regulatory strategy was illustrated earlier this year when McNeil Consumer Healthcare, a division of Johnson & Johnson, was accused of hiring contractors to buy potentially defective adult Motrin from stores rather than recalling the drug. Later, the FDA found such serious quality control problems at a McNeil plant that it was closed and McNeil voluntarily recalled 136 million bottles of children's cold and allergy medicines.
FDA officials have lobbied Congress for years to give them the tools they need, including broader inspection powers, the right to examine manufacturers' records and authority to issue mandatory recalls. Legislation passed by the House and awaiting action in the Senate would provide those tools and others when it comes to the food industry, which is increasingly global and has taxed the FDA's ability to determine whether food entering the United States has been raised and processed safely. Still needed is similar legislation to help the FDA oversee safety of medications.
This year's recalls demonstrate there is too much risk in not acting. Americans deserve more assurance that the foods and medicines they consume are not hazards to their health.