There are few places in the United States that have less in common than Oroville, Washington and Washington, D.C. Tucked against the Canadian border in the peaceful and beautiful Okanagan Valley, Oroville is easier to reach from Kelowna, B.C. than from Seattle. Yet events in Oroville last Friday combined with the unusual events in the other Washington beginning last Sunday to give an Oroville business an historical significance it undoubtedly would have preferred not to have.

Last Friday, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, then known as S. 510, was as dead as Don Van Vliet, a/k/a Captain Beefheart, the legendary musician who passed away that day. Thus, the FDA had no more than the same power it has always had: publicity and the right to shut down a facility, but no power to force a recall. That day, Sally Jackson Cheeses of Oroville, provided evidence that linked its artisanal cheeses to outbreaks of E. Coli O157:H7, agreed to a recall of all of its products

As we know, on Sunday, the food safety bill was resurrected in an unusual weekend session of the Senate and was passed today by the House and heads to President Obama’s desk for a certain signature. The new act contains a section, effective immediately upon the President’s signature, which gives the FDA mandatory recall authority for the first time in its history. While that section includes a provision (which will become Section 423(a) of the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act) calling on the FDA to give companies a chance to effect a voluntary recall before using its mandatory powers, the difference between wielding a velvet glove and a velvet fist is significant. 

Thus, a tiny cheese manufacturer in an isolated Washington town, through an unexpected chain of events occurring nearly 2700 miles away, may have become the last food manufacturer ever to agree to a voluntary recall without the FDA’s power to order it to do so looming in the background.