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Preventing the Chobani Mold Problem

By Jenny Levin
Public Health Advocate

The constant stream of food recalls has made one thing clear: more needs to be done to protect Americans from the risk of unsafe food. Instead we’re seeing important rules, standards, and inspections that could significantly improve food safety getting blocked, underfunded, or delayed, allowing the drumbeat of recalls to continue.

Making headlines this week was Chobani Greek Yogurt. Consumers complained about the yogurts smelling and tasting foul, as well as bubbling and bursting on unsuspecting victims. Some consumers reported illness, including the parents of some younger yogurt aficionados. While the mold discovered in this yogurt isn’t as frightening as some foodborne illnesses, for the children and adults who consumed the spoiled yogurt the incident was a painful reminder that we are still waiting on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to implement much of the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

This long-awaited landmark bill marked the first time since the 1930s that food safety regulations were overhauled. Among its many benefits are increased FDA facility inspection authority and mandatory recall authority. It also allows the FDA to require food facilities to identify hazards and implement preventative control measures in a routinely updated plan.

Unfortunately, much of the FSMA has yet to be implemented. That is partly because the FDA has not been given adequate funding to do its job. In order for the FDA to effectively implement the food safety measures (e.g., increased inspections) passed into law, Congress needs to appropriate the necessary funds to the agency.

Another roadblock delaying finalization of the food safety rules is the Office of Management and Budget. It held the draft for the Preventive Controls for Human Food rule in review well past its final July 4, 2012 deadline—when the finalized rule was legally required by Congress to be published.

The regulatory review arm of the White House is required to review rules in no more than 90 days, yet the Preventive Controls for Human Food rule languished there for over a year—missing its own deadline for review as well as the deadline set by Congress for the FDA. The FDA extended comment periods on the draft rules to such an extreme that public interest groups took the agency to court. The judge sided with the Center for Food Safety, ordering the FDA to publish all FSMA rules by June 2015.

When these rules are finally put into use, the FSMA should significantly reduce the rates of foodborne illness. Facilities will need to put in place sanitation and preventive controls that are based on scientific hazard analyses and establish performance standards to measure the implementation of proper food safety procedures. 

It is possible that Chobani has the highest quality control measures, but the fact is we have no other choice but to take their word for it. The FDA is currently limited, with only around 3,400 full-time employees for the 68,000 facilities in need of inspection. Had the Preventive Controls for Human Food rule been implemented, the FDA would at least have had access to a detailed preventive control plan from the Chobani facility. Unfortunately, as it stands, it won’t have a preventive control plan for these sorts of facilities until sometime in 2016.

It is clear that the delay of the FSMA rules is not just the fault of an understaffed, underfunded FDA, but the result the White House’s disregard of regulatory review deadlines. According to a report by the Center for Progressive Reform, of the White House’s 501 completed reviews, 59 went beyond 120 days and 22 lasted longer than 180 days. [1]

The real tragedy is that despite the hard-won, long-awaited policy overhaul and the existence of advanced food safety technology, in the past few years, Americans have grown accustomed to seeing headlines about tainted food being recalled and pulled off store shelves.

For now, these high-profile recalls are still managing to leave many Americans wondering whether enough is being done to reduce the risk of contaminated food and foodborne illness. And it is something we should continue worrying about—48 million people in America get sick from eating tainted food each year. Despite significant costs to our economy, despite the costs to the health of our public, the number of such illnesses, particularly salmonella, has remained steady for at least 5 years. [2]

At the end of the day, given the private and academic expertise around food safety in this country, it is outrageous that facilities aren’t required to maintain industry-specific hazard control plans (currently, facilities regulated by the FDA follow general regulations on good manufacturing practices).[3]   

 

Food facilities should work to identify hazards and put preventive controls in place in anticipation of final rules being published. And the FDA should move forward with rulemaking when the OMB misses review deadlines. Because whether it is moldy yogurt or salmonella-laced dog food, regulatory delays have real consequences. Delaying safety rules only costs more lives and causes more preventable illness.   

Resources:

[1] Behind Closed Doors at the White House: How Politics Trumps Protection of Public Health, Worker Safety, and the Environment. 2011. Rena Steinzor, Michael Patoka, James Goodwin. Retrieved from http://www.progressivereform.org/articles/OIRA_Meetings_1111.pdf

[2] U.S. PIRG Education Fund. Total Food Recall: Unsafe Foods Putting American Lives At Risk. 2012. http://www.uspirg.org/sites/pirg/files/reports/USP%20TotalFoodRecall%20final%2012-12.pdf

 [3] Congressional Research Service. The Federal Food Safety System: A Primer. Renée Johnson. November 26, 2012.  Retrieved from http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS22600.pdf

 

 

 

 

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