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The HVP recall: Damage control déjà vu

15-Mar-2010
Last updated on 16-Mar-2010 at 17:43 GMT

Not again! It emerged last week that Basic Food Flavors, the company behind the ongoing HVP recall, knew its products were tainted with salmonella but carried on shipping them anyway. Déjà vu anyone?

No, it’s not just you – we’re all stuck in a nightmarish loop in which foods become contaminated and all the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can do is request that companies recall them. Time and again, it turns out that companies can take some convincing.

While some countries focus primarily on preventing foodborne illness, the US system is disproportionately concentrated on damage control once tainted foods have been distributed. And damage control is failing.

This is the third time in just over a year that the FDA has reported remarkably similar stories: Peanuts, pistachios and now the common flavor enhancer, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), all continued to be distributed after companies found out their ingredients contained potentially lethal bacteria.

It’s frightening enough that Basic Food Flavors carried on business as usual for a whole month after salmonella was first found at its plant, and that the FDA says it did nothing to minimize the risk. But what’s really shocking is that even when the agency told the company it should issue a recall, six days passed before the firm actually did so. Fortunately no deaths have been linked to the contamination.

However, the impotence of the FDA, responsible for about 80 percent of the US food supply, is in the spotlight yet again.

Frankly, it is dismal that a government agency has to plead with a company to recall tainted food. It could be a measure of how deeply heads are buried in sand that some were still surprised this month when the United States was named among the top five worst offenders for food safety incidents from 2003 to 2008.

Here’s a reminder: About 5,000 people die in the US from foodborne illness each year, 375,000 are hospitalized, and about one in four Americans falls ill simply by eating their dinner.

Shamefully, a bill that could prevent some of those illnesses by giving the FDA authority to order recalls is stuck in legislative no man’s land, after passing unanimously through committee in November. The bill came about in the aftermath of the peanut product recall last year, in which nine people died. Let’s ensure that more deaths aren’t needed to get it heard in the Senate.

However, there are those who continue to argue strongly for less government involvement in food safety, saying it creates unnecessary costs and red tape.

I’m sure most are entirely honest people who care deeply about the safety of their products. But you know what? As the major recall incidents over the past year have shown, even if 99.9 percent of the industry is made up of decent people, more concerned about whether their fellow citizens are well (and still alive) after eating their products than about the bottom line, there are still some who would rather take the risk. As the boss of the Peanut Corporation of America put it, there are “huge $$$$$” at stake.

A full investigation will need to be done, but it looks like this is about unscrupulous individuals, rather than the honesty of the industry at large.

Let’s stop procrastinating and get down to telling politicians to act – now.

The public won’t stomach much more damage control.

Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef.

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