In her blog at eFoodAlert.com, Phyllis Entis today discussed France’s approach, or lack thereof, to letting the food-consuming public know about foodborne threats to their health. The story arose from an outbreak of staphylococcal enterotoxin contained within three batches of cheese that were made using unpasteurized milk (aka "raw milk") from a single milk storage tank. Entis writes:
The outbreak report that appeared last week does not discuss the possible source of the bacterial contamination – it could have been a single mastitic cow, a farm worker, or even a worker at the cheese manufacturer. Instead, the authors closed their outbreak report with the following self-congratulatory statement:
"Finally, this study illustrates that the French national surveillance system is able to detect rare events. The staphylococcal food poisoning outbreaks linked to SEE ingestion described here were quickly identified through a close collaboration between the Health Emergency Mission, the National institute for public health surveillance and the EU-RL with laboratories involved in food surveillance for coagulase-positive staphylococci and staphylococcal enterotoxins and the good cooperation of all parties involved. The rapid recall of contaminated cheese batches by the French Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fishery prevented further cases."
This is not an insignificant concern; and despite our state and federal governments’ more liberal approaches to the dissemination of information to the public, its not a concern that is relevent only abroad. And its also not a concern only relevent to the government. The free and efficient flow of information to the public about a potential health threat is also a duty owed by the companies that make defective products.
From July 2009 through February 2010, at least 252 people were infected by Salmonella as a result of consuming Daniele, Inc. salami products that were manufactured using contaminated pepper. The salami actually contained two kinds of pepper, red and black, both of which may have been contaminated. Daniele purchased the contaminated pepper from two different companies: Mincing Overseas Spice Company and Wholesome Spice Co, who have since initiated recalls of their contaminated products. Ever since, multiple food companies from across the country have inititated their own recalls because they contained pepper from Mincing and Wholesome spice companies.
See Delays in Pepper Recalls Threaten Public Health. And just this week, yet another company was added to the still-growing recall list.
The problem, of course, is that the contaminated or defective products are still, potentially, in the market, posing ongoing risks to public health. This may or may not be a continuing concern in the pepper recall; there has been no indication whether there are additional illnesses linked to another food product containing contaminated pepper. But it may be; and more importantly, the pepper recall is certainly not the last time that a company’s traceability program, and its desire to let the public know of the risks it faces, will be put to the test.
Thus, whether it appears in a statute or not, recalling companies have an obligation not only to announce the recall but also to act aggressively in (a) identifying what retailers or other companies may have received the contaminated product (b) identifying what consumers may have purchased the contaminated product and (c) using all means necessary to make the important details of the recall (e.g. what products are included) known to retailers and consumers alike.