Report calls on FDA to finalize plan to trace source of foodborne illness outbreaks

While most of the food we eat is generally considered to be safe for consumers, sometimes it can get people sick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 128,000 people are hospitalized every year in the U.S. because of a foodborne illness and more than 3,000 people die each year.

Now, a new watchdog report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is calling on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to finalize its plan to implement a new rule for tracing outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.

In 2022, the FDA announced a new rule requiring farmers, distributors, retailers, and others in the food industry to provide detailed records about certain foods like produce, seafood and more.

The report says to identify foods for the list, the FDA considered certain criteria including the history and severity of prior outbreaks involving the food product.

“It’s really clear that the ability for the government to quickly trace tainted foods to the source of contamination and recall a contaminated product in a very targeted manner is really critical and can help prevent illness, improve public health and also reduce financial losses,” said Steve Morris, a Director overseeing food and agricultural issues for GAO.

The new FDA rule goes into full effect in 2026.

“It’s really important to have these records because when public health officials detect an outbreak, it’s often difficult to tell at first what food caused that outbreak,” said Sarah Sorscher, Director of Regulatory Affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “You may know that multiple people ate the same type of lettuce for example, but you don’t know which farm that came from or how many restaurants bought the lettuce and so it could be difficult to manage a recall.”

In response to the report, the FDA said it agrees with the recommendations to finalize and document how the new recordkeeping requirement will be carried out.

“What we’re talking about here is having better insight into how food moves up and down our food supply,” said Sorscher.

“Basically, FDA needs to work out how it’s going to work with the states and others to enforce the new requirements,” said Morris. “It also needs to be detailed in its explanation how it’s going to reach out to industry.”

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