Closing the Gap Between Food Regulations and Online Food Sales

Recently, a product contaminated with Salmonella was sold online after the product had been recalled by the producing firm. According to FoodSafety Magazine, in May, more than 30 people contracted salmonellosis from Garden of Life Raw Organic Meal, a line of organic meal replacer and shake powders, that was contaminated with salmonella. These products were originally recalled by Garden of Life in January 2016, and the recall was expanded in February 2016.

The illness count rose higher after the recall. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expected the count to rise a little. The shakes and meal replacements have a long shelf life and people may have bought the product, but not yet consumed it at the time of the investigation. However, the count also rose because not all the product was removed from online vendors, such as Amazon and eBay.

How the FDA Monitors Online Food Safety

Food recall procedure is an increasing concern these days. Recalls can be initiated by the producing firm or by the FDA. They are an important step for removing adulterated, mislabeled, or contaminated food from the market.

In general, the producing firm is responsible for notifying the FDA about a potential hazard, but sometimes the FDA initiates the process on its own, after receiving complaints or reports of illnesses.  After the recall is initiated, the FDA issues the press release, notifying state officials and the public. (ConsumerSafety.org relies on FDA recall reports to provide information about specific recalls.)

While the producing firm is responsible for contacting the companies the product was shipped to, so that the product can be pulled from the shelf before consumers purchase it, the FDA collects paperwork, samples, and monitors the overall recall process. If the producing firm is unable to effectively recall all the food, the FDA can step in and make changes where necessary. The Associate Commissioner of Public Affairs evaluates the effectiveness of the FDA notice and manages all press concerns about it.

Each facility that manufactures, stores, or handles food must be registered with the FDA, even companies that sell food products online, like Amazon or eBay.  This requirement is part of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002. The FDA has the authority to inspect these facilities and track and report any problems. This is a key component in a recall situation.  Because each facility is registered, the product can be tracked more easily, and documentation is required to be maintained.

But as was the case recently with the Garden of Life recall, facilities that sell through online avenues seem to struggle with such recalls. Whether intentionally or not, food is still being made available for sale online after recalls are made – which can lead to serious illness and possibly even death.

Improving Online Food Safety

In light of recent problems related to recalls of food sold over the Internet, the FDA is considering a change in their recall procedures, specifically targeted to online retailers. One FDA spokesperson has been quoted as saying, “In light of this recent case, we are considering other ways to reach retailers and consumers to make sure they are aware of the recall.”

While there are no specific changes currently being proposed for how to make online food sales safer for consumers, the need for it is at least recognized by the FDA and other regulatory agencies. Let’s hope that a change for the better comes sooner rather than later.