With food safety the subject of so much activity in Washington, D.C., this summer, it is perhaps inevitable that mandatory recall authority for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service would be proposed — again.

Recalls at present are voluntary, though companies subject to a recall notice from FSIS almost always voluntarily comply to protect brand names and business. Indeed, in calls to industry representatives, only a single instance of noncompliance with a voluntary recall notice could be recalled, involving a small poultry processor several years ago.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) has made the latest reintroduction of mandatory recall authority to Congress. Under the Udall proposal, USDA would have the power to force companies to recall meat and poultry that inspectors believe is contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, metal or glass fragments, disallowed ingredients or other contaminants. "When the USDA cannot get tainted meat off the market swiftly, all our consumers are at risk," said the senator last week. "This legislation will give USDA the authority to act quickly and decisively to protect the public." He said 5,000 people die each year from food-borne illnesses and 325,000 people need to be hospitalized each year from food-borne illnesses. Over the years, mandatory recall authority has been supported by a broad coalition of consumer organizations, as well as by former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and other politicians.

Chris Waldrop, director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America, told MEATPOULRY.com that "while we recognize that for the most part companies have complied with the voluntary recall program, we think mandatory authority is a good tool if FSIS ever has to have it." He added: "The food-safety agencies — FSIS and FDA — need modern tools. The landscape has changed a lot since the original enabling legislation for those agencies was put in place. The Meat Inspection Act is more than 100 years old, for example. It has been pretty effective overall, but we think this will make it even stronger."

Jeremy Russell, spokesman for the National Meat Association, thinks the real problem boils down to language and nomenclature. "I just think that there are some people who hear the word ‘voluntary’ and they assume the program is really weak because of it. It’s an easy target – you can make ‘voluntary’ sound really bad."

He told MEATPOULTRY.com that when NMA has met with consumer organizations and explained how voluntary recall authority has worked to date and how mandatory recall authority might work, there’s often a change of mind. "Often these groups will be for mandatory recall until they get into the details. Mandatory can be worse than voluntary, actually. It’s not an improvement."

Mandatory recall authority for FSIS has been proposed in Congress several times in recent years (also for FDA, though not as frequently). The idea seems to return with the regularity of planetary orbit, but has so far always been defeated. Does it have a better chance of finally passing this year? Waldrop said it’s a possibility. "I do think there’s a lot more attention being paid to food safety this year," he commented, "though most of the attention so far has been on FDA." Russell is less confident. "The environment in Washington is primed for change, but from our perspective there are a lot of positive things happening — the President’s Food Safety Working Group, for example. We think that the changes we’re going to see will still be good ones."