So many things about the computer age are so disappointing, so frustrating, so last century.
Don’t get me wrong. The information superhighway is a groovy trip and I’m happy to be along for the ride via this incredible bit of technology sitting on my lap. It’s so much more convenient than the key punch cards I bundled up in rubber bands for my semester project for “Introduction to Fortran” at the University of Kansas.
If only our legislative and regulatory environment could evolve as quickly.
Take the ongoing multi-state outbreak of Hepatitis A and the related recall of frozen strawberries imported from the Egyptian firm International Company for Agricultural Production and Processing (ICAPP). All of the strawberries ICAPP sent to the United States since Jan. 1 are covered by the recall, which was posted on the Food and Drug Administration’s website on Halloween.
Federal and state officials have been aware of the link between the outbreak and the strawberries since early August. Initially reported to have been distributed to Tropical Smoothie Cafe locations in Virginia, it turns out the frozen strawberries from Egypt went to five distributors that sent them to foodservice operations across America.
FDA named those five distributors this past week, but those names are of little use to consumers. The data those distributors have is what the public needs. The records of where the strawberries went are readily available, but not to the public.
Regulations prohibit FDA from releasing such confidential corporate information — CCI as the FDA folks refer to it. Ironic, isn’t it, that big business so often calls for deregulation. I’m betting the CCI clauses are not among the government regs corporations and industry lobbyists are seeking to eliminate when they talk about government being too big.
So in the name of protecting businesses, the feds can’t say where the strawberries went. Be assured, though, “the FDA is working with these firms to help identify further downstream customers who may have received the recalled frozen strawberry products,” according to the agency’s outbreak/recall update Wednesday.
The same CCI excuse and reassurances came from FDA officials earlier this year in response to questions about the General Mills flour recall. We still don’t know where all of that flour went. Other food manufacturers dribbled out recalls of baking mixes and other products made with the flour that is linked to a multi-state E. coli outbreak.
An extra sense of urgency is built into the strawberry situation, though.
Unlike the people exposed to E. coli via the flour, some of the potentially millions of people who have been served the recalled strawberries in schools, restaurants, hospitals, hotels and at other venues and events could benefit from post-exposure vaccinations for Hepatitis A — but only if they get treatment within two weeks of exposure.
With the strawberries having been in nationwide distribution since January, many people who have been exposed are obviously past the two-week mark. But the FDA said Wednesday that officials know the strawberries were served as recently as Oct. 27.
California officials acted quickly, compiling and posting on Oct. 30 a list of entities that received the strawberries. The list is being updated and stood at about 3,000 locations last time I checked it.
Michigan has a shorter list, with less than 100 locations as of Saturday night. The information for the state list is being provided hit and miss by county and city officials.
Colorado’s Weld County posted a notice Saturday naming two restaurants in its jurisdiction that received the implicated fruit.
So the question remains, with 3,141 counties in the United States and one Food and Drug Administration, why is the public waiting for distribution information to drip out one county at a time when the FDA could open the tap?
If Mr. Spock were to answer that question, he’d probably say it’s an example of the needs of the few, aka big business, out-weighing the needs of the many, aka you and me.
It’s time to remove the gag, revise the regs with all of us in mind instead of the few, and let the FDA share distribution information during recalls, especially during recalls related to ongoing outbreaks.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)