3 New Ways FDA Will Access Your Records and 5 Things You Can Do About It

The Food Safety Modernization Act ("FSMA") significantly expands the FDA's ability to access a food company’s records.

The expanded authority is found in three places in the statute:

  1. FSMA § 101 amends 31 USC § 350c(a) and allows the FDA to obtain records related not only to a product that the FDA believes "will cause serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals" but also those related to "any other article of food" that the FDA believes is "likely to be affected in a similar manner."

This statute may allow FDA to "access and copy" all records in any format and at any location of products that are not known to be contaminated but that might share similar ingredients or be produced in a shared facility or that could otherwise be affected in a "similar manner" as products thought to be contaminated.

Section 101 was effective immediately on FSMA becoming law in January 2011.

  1. FSMA § 103 requires that FDA facilities (with certain exceptions) implement "Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventative Controls." As part of this section, Congress requires the affected FDA facilities to keep "records documenting the monitoring of the preventative controls" and to keep a "written plan that documents and describes the procedures used by the facility to comply with the requirements of this section." Congress requires that these records "be made promptly available" to the FDA upon "oral or written request." The statute also requires that records be kept for at least two years.

Note that unlike in section 101, Congress did not use the term "copy" in section 103. This section instead says that records must "be made promptly available."

The question remains open whether the FDA interprets "be made promptly available" to mean copy and whether such a broad interpretation will be held up by the courts. Section 103 is effective in July 2012.

  1. FSMA § 202 requires the FDA by January 2013 to create a "program for the testing of food by accredited laboratories." By July 2013, section 202 will require testing by an "owner or consignee (i) in response to a specific testing requirement under this Act or implementing regulations, when applied to address an identified or suspected food safety problem; and (ii) as required by the Secretary, as the Secretary deems appropriate, to address an identified or suspected food safety problem.“

Test results from the FDA-accredited lab "shall be sent directly to the [FDA]" unless exempted by regulation.

The big questions under section 202 are whether:

a. Routine product and environmental testing accomplished for the purpose of a food safety plan under section 103 will be considered "in response to a specific testing requirement . . . when applied to address an identified or suspected food safety problem" and

b. The FDA will exempt certain testing records under this provision.

So, what should you do to prepare for the FDA's considerable expansion of its ability to access your records?

Here are five things that a food company should consider:

  1. Understand what records the FDA does not have the right to access (recipes, financial, pricing, research, personnel or certain sales data), and maintain these separate from records the FDA can access.
  2. Create and enforce a document destruction policy that conforms with FSMA.
  3. Create a standard FOIA letter to present to the FDA when it requests letters explaining that it considers information provided to be trade secrets, confidential and proprietary.
  4. Create and train employees on a confidential FDA inspection policy that involves legal counsel and therefore can be cloaked in the attorney-client privilege.
  5. Understand what finished product and environmental testing is needed and not needed for a section 103 food safety plan.

How Regulatory Changes Affect Litigation Risks

On February 24, 2011, Lee Smith and I presented "How Regulatory Changes Affect Litigation Risks" to the Grocery Manufacturers Association's food litigation conference. A link to the slide-deck can be found here.

We discussed ways that the Reportable Food Registry (RFR) and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) are affecting litigation now and can be expected to affect litigation in the near term.

In particular, we discussed:

  • Ongoing and pending changes to the RFR
  • FSMA’s grant of records access to FDA
  • Mandatory recall authority and how this may delay certain recalls
  • Suspension of FDA registration
  • Hazard analysis and preventative controls: What are they? How do they differ from HAACP? How they will be effective with or without FDA rulemaking
  • Regulation of chemicals under FSMA (and under proposed changes to TSCA and Proposition 65 in California)
  • Specific things that food sellers should consider now to reduce risk

Let me know if your business is interested in an in-house, customized presentation or training on the RFR and FSMA.

Listeria Recall Toolkit

The FDA recently took the relatively unusual step of obtaining a court-issued warrant to seize all cheese products at Estrella Family Creamery, a small, family-owned artisan cheese maker in Washington State. According to the United States Attorney's Office for the Western District of Washington, "the FDA asked Estrella to recall all cheese products. The company refused." The FDA requested the recall after both products and the manufacturing environment at Estrella tested positive for Listeria. A copy of the FDA form 483 report immediately pre-dating the recall request is here.

As the Estrella situation illustrates, the FDA is not just focused on large-scale manufacturing. As the FDA and USDA move to more risk-based allocation of resources, they are increasingly concerned about smaller operations and retail. Below are issues any food manufacturer must tackle when it comes to Listeria (much of this also applies to other food-borne pathogens).

What is Listeria?

Listeria monocytogenes is a bacterium that causes listeriosis, which primarily affects persons of advanced age, pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems. Though it affects only a small portion of the population, Listeria is the most deadly food-borne pathogen in the United States, killing 20-30% of all those who become seriously ill.

What should you do if your product tests positive for Listeria?

Assemble your well-rehearsed crisis management team immediately if a product tests positive (or if a regulator believes that your product may be contaminated). Members of the crisis management team; food safety personnel; company executives; and representatives from accounting, legal, supply chain, sales and customer service all are essential in the decision making process below.

Can you trace back and isolate contamination?

Quality assurance and food safety personnel need to answer trace-back issues as soon as possible. Can you determine the source of the contamination? Is it limited to one lot or a single day of production? How often are production facilities sanitized? How often are production surfaces swabbed for Listeria? Does the production facility re-use contaminated product from shift to shift?

Will you have to issue a recall?

Both the FDA and USDA lack mandatory recall authority. Though, as Estrella learned, the agencies do have the bully pulpit and the ability to get a court order to seize products. Because of the high mortality rate, regulators (federal and state) take any positive Listeria test result in food products extremely seriously.

If the food is considered a ready-to-eat product (RTE), a positive Listeria test will almost invariably lead to the FDA or USDA requesting a class I recall.

Even for a non-RTE food, a positive Listeria test will lead to a requested recall. If the agencies believe that the cooking instructions are clear, are easily followed by consumers and, if followed, will kill the bacterium, then the recall may be considered class II.

A primary difference between class I and II is that the class I recall will result in much greater publicity. For FDA-regulated facilities, a class I recall also triggers reporting and notification requirements under the Reportable Food Registry (RFR).

What does the Reportable Food Registry require?

RFR requires FDA-registered facilities to report to the FDA portal within 24 hours when there is a "reasonable probability that an article of food will cause serious adverse health consequences." As part of the report, information must be submitted "one step back and one step forward" in the supply chain. Once a report is submitted, the FDA will promptly alert your customers of the "reasonable probability" that your product will result in "adverse health consequences or death." If suppliers and customers are also FDA facilities, the FDA will also pressure those companies to report to the portal.

The ticking of the RFR's 24-hour reporting deadline forces a company to make snap decisions that might affect its entire business. While RFR reports can be amended or withdrawn based on new information, in the world of food products, the bell can almost never be unrung. A more lengthy discussion of the RFR can be found here.

How do you marshal your case with the regulators?

Assuming that you have information showing that contamination is limited (or non-existent), how do you convince the regulators? The FDA and USDA’s concern is public health (and politics). The regulators’ concern is not for your business.

Providing information to the regulators in a manner they perceive as credible, prompt and transparent is critical. Once the regulators lose confidence in your company's credibility and competence, the game may be over. In most cases, the most effective way to marshal your evidence is a well-prepared and credentialed crisis management team (e.g., food safety, quality assurance, supply chain, accounting, sales, legal, media, etc.).

CDC Sees "Sustained Decline" for 2009 in Reported Rates of Food-Borne Illness, but Is This Real?

A somewhat surprising report out this week by the CDC reports for 2009 "sustained declines in the reported incidence of infections caused by Campylobacter, Listeria, Salmonella, Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) O157, Shigella, and Yersinia." Only Vibrio seems on the rise. For E.coli O157:H7 infections, the CDC claims its "Healthy People 2010 target" was met.

The chart below shows the trend lines since 1996 in the reported incidence for many of these pathogens:

FIGURE 1. Relative rates of laboratory-confirmed infections with Campylobacter, STEC* O157, Listeria, Salmonella, and Vibrio compared with 1996-1998 rates, by year -- Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet), United States, 1996-2009†
 

While the news sounds good,(see Rick Goldfarb's detailed analysis of the implications of the 2009 report for context) other factors could be at play that give only the appearance of a safer food system. One explanation can be found in a CDC report from 2009 that "in 2009, 10% fewer epidemiologists were working in state health departments than in 2006." The data the CDC has is only as good as the capacity the state health departments have on the ground to collect it. Fewer epidemiologists means fewer investigated food-borne illnesses. Fewer investigated food-borne illnesses means fewer reported food-borne illnesses. Fewer reported food-borne illnesses, therefore, does not necessarily mean the existence of fewer food-borne illnesses.

Assessing Risks of Chemicals in Foods with Limited Scientific Information

An important study was released this month by the Institute of Food Technologists addressing the challenge of responding to food contamination with limited scientific information. Ricardo Carvajal at Hyman, Phelps & McNamara wrote about this on the FDALawBlog last week. You can read the summary by Rosetta L. Newsome here.

Ms. Newsome summarizes the three main sections of the study as follows:

First Section:

“details the U.S. legal framework that provides the foundation for U.S. food safety policy,
describes international considerations (e.g., Codex standards) that impact foods in international commerce, and addresses European Union law and standards.”

Second Section:

“briefly addresses structure activity relationships, surrogate compounds and metabolites,
predictions based on physical/chemical data, toxicological evaluation, use of animal studies, statistical considerations, and other aspects of risk assessment.”

Third Section:

“addresses why a new approach is needed to conduct a risk-based evaluation of the potential exposure, hazard, and toxicity of low levels of unwanted chemical substances in foods and how information on risk can be used to make appropriately conservative and balanced decisions[;] . . . also calls attention to the importance of evaluating benefits of the food(s) in which the component is found as well as risks.”

Next Generation Sequencing for the Food Industry

More and more, it is becoming true that nothing drives detection and prevention of food-borne illness than technology (and, of course, with advancements in detection come potential increases in exposure to legal liability). No technological advancement may be more significant than Next Generation Sequencing ("Next Gen Sequencing").  

I've recently had the opportunity to spend time learning about Next Gen Sequencing with Dr. Andrew Benson, a genetic microbiologist at the University of Nebraska’s Department of Food Science and Technology. Dr. Benson has received large research grants to harness the power of Next Gen sequencing. If you’re interested in the field, take a look at this short video, where Dr. Benson explains the technology, and check out the information on the CAGE (Core for Applied Genomics and Ecology) website.

As described on the CAGE website, this Next Gen technology “allows a single machine to accomplish in 48 hours what used to take an entire room full of machines and an army of
staff a month to achieve.”

Dr. Benson and others at CAGE explain further that:

Having such a powerful diagnostic technique now challenges us to rethink completely how we might go about risk assessment. Instead of looking for a single “indicator organism” in a food sample, we can now look at the entire population of microorganisms in a food sample and ask if the community of organisms present is the expected species that normally occupy that food or if the sample contains numbers of unexpected species, and in particular those species that are unique to fecal or soil environments. Thus, our assessment of “risk” is now based on the entire population, including the most abundant species of fecal and soil communities. Because our assessment is based on the entire composition, multiple species that are unique to feces or soil can be used in the determination, making the assessment much more accurate and robust. Moreover, the assessment is not limited to “risk” as we can also determine if the microbial community in a food sample has shifted toward spoilage (which gives us shelf-life predictions) or is consistent with “good” organoleptic properties of the food. The list of applications goes on and on.

Discoveries using this technology are happening at astonishing speed. PFGE testing, now considered the "gold standard" and generic E.coli testing may soon seem old fashioned and crude.  

What Is the Utility of Microbiological Testing Data in Litigation?

As microbiological testing of products in the field or in processing plants becomes more frequent (even ubiquitous), there are questions about its usefulness.  Microbiologists say that the utility of microbiological sampling as it is currently done is marginal at best.  Current testing looks at only a small sample of a product for a small range of bacteria, meaning a contaminated product easily can test negative.

Testing is done largely because it can be, and because some testing is better than none.  For meat and poultry plants, FSIS has announced that testing data will be posted on its Web site.  In the event of a positive test result, food can be recalled or prevented from entering the marketplace.

Because a negative test result proves nothing, it is usually irrelevant in litigation (especially at trial).  The negative result, therefore, is nothing more than a red herring.

Recent breakthroughs in technology may dramatically increase the utility of testing.  These breakthrough technologies can be combined with methods that do not rely on actual culturing of the organisms, allowing microbiologists to examine the entire population of microorganisms present in an ecosystem. This “community profiling” concept entirely changes how microbiologists would interpret testing data. Microbiology promises us the ability to conduct “community profiling” of bacteria on food products.  Dr. Andrew Benson of the University of Nebraska offered fascinating insight into this emerging technology at the April 11-12 food law conference at Seattle University Law School.  While the approach cannot yet get around the limited sample size, the ability to examine the content of the entire community of microorganisms in a sample may offer industry more reliable information and the chance to use microbiological testing to reduce risk in a meaningful way. Stay tuned as technologies develop. . .