Watchdog: FDA recall process left consumers "at risk of illness or death"

A government watchdog will warn the FDA its food recall process is not adequate and sometimes dangerous.

CBS News has learned an inspector general of the Health and Human Services will issue what is called a "rare alert" Thursday, which says the FDA's lack of effective recall procedures left some consumers at risk of illness or death.

The inspector general's in-depth look at how recalls were handled won't be finished until roughly next year, but investigators felt this was too urgent to wait. They're taking the unusual step of issuing an alert, saying the FDA took too long to get companies to pull some contaminated food products from shelves, putting consumers in danger, reports CBS News correspondent Anna Werner.

Auditors are reviewing 30 food recalls between October 2012 and May 2015, but in the alert lay out two cases where they say "consumers remained at risk of illness or death for several weeks after FDA knew of potentially hazardous food."

"I think the time that these recalls took were problematic, absolutely," said George Nedder, who is leading the audit.

According to the alert, in a salmonella outbreak in 2014 linked to nut butter, investigators found it took 165 days from the date the problem product was identified to the date of the firm's voluntary recall. There were 14 illnesses in 11 states.

During a listeria outbreak later that same year linked to cheese products, auditors determined a series of recalls took 81 days to complete. At least nine people became ill, including an infant who died and two pregnant women lost their fetuses.

"If you're FDA and you know of, as you say, eight people who are already ill or have gotten ill over this, how many days would you expect?" Nedder said. "How many days would America expect them to take to figure and get this product off the shelf?"

The FDA's Dr. Steven Ostroff defends the agency, saying thousands of recalls are handled successfully each year.

"I think that we have traditionally done a very good job," Ostroff said. "For us to be able to do the trace-backs and be able to identify how this all comes together takes a fair amount of time in some instances... there are situations in which it's very challenging to be able to take the actions that need to be taken as quickly as possible."

But for Nedder, these actions aren't happening quickly enough.

"Unless you get all the product off the shelf, people are still at risk," Nedder said.

The FDA is already making changes in response to the inspector general's probe, setting up an internal review group that can push for quicker action on recalls.

Nedder said of the hundreds of audits he's worked on during his 27-year career, this is only the third time he has issued an alert before the full report.