Brown Calls on USDA, FDA to Address Unsafe Practices Employed by Food Manufacturers

In Wake of Reports on Food Manufacturers Failing to Remove Hazards in Frozen Foods, Brown Calls for Evaluation of Labeling, Testing Practices

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) wrote to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and acting Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Administrator Joshua Sharfstein today regarding reports of unsafe practices employed by food manufacturers. Brown asked the administration to evaluate testing and labeling practices of food manufacturers in order to better protect consumers.

“Consumers are not only being asked to bear the burden of ensuring the safety of the manufactured food they purchase, but that they are being given inadequate information to fulfill that misplaced responsibility,” Brown wrote in his letter to Vilsack and Sharfstein. “I am writing you to ask that you take action immediately to right this dangerously wrong situation.

Brown referenced an article appearing in today’s New York Times reporting how some food manufacturers are no longer requiring their suppliers to test for food pathogens and are no longer  cooking their products sufficiently to kill any bacteria that may be present. Instead, these companies are relying on consumers to heat purchased food products to specified temperatures in order to avoid health hazards. Brown pointed out that consumers should not be responsible for making unsafe food safe.

Brown also pointed out the dangerous trend of outsourcing in food production. More elements of the supply chain for processed foods are being outsourced to countries with weak food safety standards. Brown has authored legislation that would give the federal government new authority to recall tainted foods and establish a federal program that would quickly and accurately trace the source of tainted food. Brown’s legislation would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) the authority to mandate recalls of the foods under their respective jurisdictions.

A full copy of Brown’s letter to Vilsack can be found below.

Dear Secretary Vilsack & Acting Commissioner Sharfstein,

In today’s New York Times, there was a disturbing article (attached) describing a trend in which consumers are not only being asked to bear the burden of ensuring the safety of the manufactured food they purchase, but that they are being given inadequate information to fulfill that misplaced responsibility.  I am writing you to ask that you take action immediately to right this dangerously wrong situation.

According to the Times article, some food manufacturers are not requiring their suppliers to test for food pathogens, nor are they cooking their products sufficiently to kill any bacteria that may be present.  Instead they are relying on consumers to heat purchased food products to specified temperatures in order to avoid health hazards.  In some cases, the instructions are so vague or the heating procedure so involved that it is unrealistic to expect consumers to abide by it.  More to the point, consumers should not be responsible for making unsafe food safe.

The article also pointed the problems involved in identifying the source of a food safety hazard, problems which are multiplying as the supply chain for processed foods diversifies and the processing itself is increasingly outsourced to other countries. 

Secretary Vilsack and Acting Commissioner Sharfstein, I ask that your two agencies look into these issues and work together to resolve them.  Specifically:

• What can be done to ensure that food manufacturers properly test and process their products to ensure that they are safe before they are sold to the public?
• To what extend should the rules around food labeling change to ensure proper and easily followed cooking instructions?
• What actions should FDA and USDA take to bolster food traceability and ensure suppliers properly test the ingredients they sell to food manufacturers?  I have introduced legislation, the Food Safety and Tracking Improvement Act (S. 425), that would establish a food traceability system at the Food and Drug Administration so that we can track foods from farm to fork.  Would S. 425’s approach meet your needs?
• S. 425 would also give the FDA and USDA mandatory recall authority.  I believe the food safety gaps highlighted in this article reinforce the need for this legislation.  What are your thoughts on mandatory recall authority?

I appreciate your leadership and would be glad to discuss this request in more detail.

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