Egg Recall Prompts Reexamination of FDA Regulatory Role

Published May 31, 2016

The massive egg recall in the United States in August and September, which included more than 380 million eggs, has prompted a reconsideration of the role of the Food and Drug Administration and how it can best prevent future recalls of this size.

Vaccination Would Solve Problem

Henry Miller, a physician, molecular biologist, and fellow at the Hoover Institution in California, argues the FDA must revise its policies in several ways.

“The current laws prohibiting and punishing the sale of misbranded or adulterated food are adequate. The people who produced and sold the contaminated eggs should spend a long stretch in federal prison and should be sued for damages by those who were sickened,” Miller said.

Miller claims these types of laws have resulted in positive results in Europe.

“Such strictures encourage companies to do the right thing to avoid such problems; the majority of egg producers in the United Kingdom vaccinate their chickens against salmonella. That has virtually eliminated the problem,” Miller said. “I suspect that U.S. producers will start vaccinating now, as well. Such is the power of incentives.”

Role for Genetic Engineering?

Miller also says genetic engineering could lessen the threats of such public health problems in the future. But Kristie Prinz, a California attorney and biotechnology expert, says it would be more accurate to view genetic engineering as a “tool” in preventing contamination, rather than the absolute solution.

“Genetic engineering may have benefits in this area, but I don’t know whether advances in that area could have prevented the kind of contamination we have seen in this case. It seems clear that there were other factors at play as well that caused the contamination,” Prinz said. “At the same time, it is hard to see how genetic engineering is going to really harm the food supply.”

Prinz notes the FDA’s role in regulating the food supply could result in delays that hold back such innovations.

“While the FDA may have the authority to regulate the food supply, there could be some unfortunate consequences that may arise as a result of the FDA’s extension of authority into this area,” Prinz said. “Its exercise of authority is inevitably going to stall the development and implementation of the science of genetic engineering in animals due to the requirement of long approval processes.”

Public Safety and the FDA’s Role

Prinz maintains the FDA will still move in the right direction, if not at an ideal speed.

“I think that if science has a solution that will prevent a mass contamination, I would hope the FDA could expedite the approval process to allow that technique to be implemented as quickly as possible,” Prinz said. “It seems unlikely that there would be countervailing safety concerns that would weigh in favor of not implementing such a technique, but we have seen that happen in the past.”

This raises questions, according to Prinz, about whether the FDA is properly fulfilling its role or simply holding back innovation.

“It is legitimate to ask the question as to whether or not the FDA is really the appropriate organization to carry out such regulatory oversight,” Prinz said. “What level of oversight do we as a society really need or want in this area? And do we want FDA to be the organization to do it?”

Prevention Preferred

Still, Prinz says, the FDA’s responsibility should be to prevent these kinds of contaminations in the first place.

“When you have a mass contamination which makes a large number of people sick, you have to implement a recall in the name of public safety. Unfortunately, there is always going to be a large amount of waste that goes along with a recall, as well as economic loss, so the ideal would be to prevent the contamination in the first place,” said Prinz.

“The FDA has a responsibility to protect the public and pull contaminated products off the market when you have a contamination of this nature. What you hope is that changes can be implemented after the fact to prevent another incident down the road,” Prinz concluded.

Tabassum Rahmani ([email protected]) writes from Dublin, California.