FDA recently released updates to its Draft Industry Guidance for the Reportable Food Registry (“RFR”). The RFR, not rolled out until the fall of 2009, is still new to many companies. FDA, overwhelmed by the information coming through the RFR, is still trying to determine how to use the information submitted to the RFR and how to advise industry.

Among the more interesting clarifications in the May updates is the importance FDA puts on the possession of reportable food as a trigger for obligations under the RFR. For example, if produce is still in the field (contracted but not owned by a food seller) and tests positive for a pathogen, no reporting obligation accrues.

FDA’s hypothetical:

[F]ood facility that contracted with the farmer and tested the produce in the field is not required to submit a reportable food report, provided that the facility did not manufacture, process, pack, or hold the produce and therefore never became a responsible party with respect to the produce. However, if the field had been harvested and the contaminated produce had been moved to the food facility, the facility would have become a responsible party because it “held” the food and would be required to submit a reportable food report.

On the other hand, if the same contaminated produce is received on a company’s premises, stays in the trailer, tests positive and is rejected, a reporting obligation is triggered (even though the company did not take ownership of the product).

FDA’s description of this scenario in a Q and A format:

Q: Our manufacturing facility receives bulk trailer shipments of ingredients from our suppliers. A truck driver brings a trailer full of bulk ingredients onto our property, drops off the trailer, and drives away. However, as company policy, we do not off-load the trailers that are delivered to our facility or take ownership of the food in the trailers until after we test a sample of the food and determine that the food is acceptable. If we “reject” a shipment, i.e., return the food to the supplier, because the sample results indicate that the food is a reportable food, are we required to submit a reportable food report?

 

A: Yes, provided that you are a facility required to register with FDA under section 415(a) of the FD&C Act, you must submit a report for the food you determined to be a reportable food, even though you returned the food to your supplier. FDA considers that your facility “held” the reportable food because the trailers were no longer in transit once they were dropped off on your property. Thus, you are a responsible party with regard to the reportable food. Provided that the adulteration did not originate with you, you do not meet the criteria for the exemption from reporting in section 417(d)(2) (see Question E.3).

TAKE AWAY: If a company can set up a system to do its micro-biological testing before the product arrives on its premises or at its warehouse (public or private), it should. If faced with a reportable event, the reporting requires notification to FDA of one step forward and one step back in the supply chain even if the product is never distributed. Once a report is submitted to the RFR, a company should expect that the FDA will notify the company’s customers of the reportable event despite the fact that the customer never received product. FDA notification means the customer will be told that its vendor had contaminated product that rises to the level of class I recall though this may not actually be true. Food sellers and manufacturers, therefore, would be wise to take steps to avoid being “stuck” with RFR obligations for contaminated product it does not own.