Opinion

We all know an oxymoron when we hear one. Among my favorites: army intelligence, Amtrak schedule, and traffic engineering. Writers usually try to avoid unwittingly using oxymorons.

One that I am always trying to stamp out at Food Safety News is “voluntary recall.”

At least since the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law eight years, recalls are about as voluntary as that decision we’ve all made to sign the bottom of a traffic ticket.

The kind officer explains that we can either sign and promise to appear in court — or just mail in the fine — or be arrested on the spot. “Oh kind officer, let me sign that so you can get on your way,” says you.

Are you volunteering or taking the least painful option?

The voluntary recall, however, is the oxymoron that won’t die. For long, I blamed the food industry marketing clowns for keeping “voluntary recall” alive.

Now I’ve had to wake up and smell the coffee. It’s not the marketing clowns, it’s someone much higher up in the food chain. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb on Feb. 7  commented on “new steps to strengthen the agency’s process for issuing public warnings and notifications of recalls.”

Here’s how he began: “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking new steps to strengthen and modernize the process for issuing a public warning about a voluntary recall and for notification of recalls.”

Ouch. Not that Gottlieb tries to hide anything. It’s very much the equivalent of signing at the bottom of the traffic ticket or being arrested.

“Most companies collaborate with the FDA to rapidly initiate voluntary recalls and work with their supply chain partners to remove the product from shelves to prevent further distribution,” Gottlieb wrote. “And in general, a recall occurs quickly when the problem is discovered. However, there are situations where the FDA may need to provide safety advice to the marketplace to protect consumers.”

Except for keeping the “voluntary recall” oxymoron alive and in good standing, FDA under Gottlieb’s leadership has done some good on recalls. The agency’s mandatory recall authority is like a loaded gun, ready to aim and fire. FDA officials outlined the new mandatory recall policy this past November.

The FDA, which has jurisdiction over about 80 percent of food in the U.S., is also going to disclose retail locations for recalled food products in certain situations, according to Gottlieb. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been doing that for years.

“We’re taking a new step to help ensure appropriate public warnings and notification of recalls when FDA-regulated products are involved,” Gottlieb said last week.

“The final guidance we’re issuing today outlines circumstances when a company should issue a public warning about a voluntary recall, describes the general timeframe for companies to issue such a warning, discusses what information should be included in a public warning, and describes situations where the FDA may take action to issue its own public warning should a company’s warning be deemed insufficient. It also describes the FDA’s policy for moving forward with posting recalls to the FDA’s Enforcement Report, which is a web listing of all recalls monitored by the FDA, in some cases before a final health hazard evaluation is completed.”

There he goes again with that “voluntary recall” business in a statement that is about mandates and timelines.

The commissioner also went out of his way to address what might be incoming criticisms for FDA. Whether there are enough public warnings and too many recalls are both subjects Gottlieb addressed.

He said the FDA has issued alerts or consumer warnings related to many food products like Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, recalled vegetables, and romaine lettuce. In April 2018 the FDA issued a mandatory recall order for some kratom products. Also in 2018, the FDA went public with retail locations that sold pre-cut melon associated with an outbreak of Salmonella infections.

Gottlieb says there was a total of 7,420 recalls this past year. Of those, the commissioner said,  831 were classified in the highest risk category the agency has.

“That figure represents a five-year low in recalls,” Gottlieb says. “However, the reason why recall notices might seem to have increased is that our publicizing of these events has become more prominent. We’re routinely providing more information on recalls and other safety issues that have happened. We’ve also been communicating more frequently and, in many cases, directly to consumers through the agency’s social media. I believe that it’s critical for consumers to have this information so that they can take an action to protect their own health.”

Gottlieb promises even more in the future.

“I remain committed to investing in the FDA’s recall and outbreak programs, building on our successes, and applying the FDA’s leadership and expertise to protect American families and keep our nation safe,” he says.

Now commissioner, if you could just make one little change by substituting the word “company” for “voluntary.” By calling it a “company recall” you can eliminate an oxymoron and no one will ever accuse you of coming from army intelligence.

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Photo of Dan Flynn Dan Flynn

Editor Dan Flynn is a Northern Colorado-based writer and editor with more more than 15 years of food safety experience. As a public affairs professional, he worked with government and regulatory agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. His career as a journalist included working for newspapers throughout the West, from the Black Hills to Seattle. His on-scene reporting on the collapse of the Idaho’s Teton Dam and the suicide bombing at Washington State University’s Perham Hall was carried by newspapers around the world and was recognized both times regionally by the Associated Press for Best Reporting on a Deadline. Most of the disasters he attends these days involve food illnesses.