OGD: FDA to launch product recall database


When salmonella outbreaks were discovered last year in peanut butter and pistachios, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took action by posting information about affected products on its web page, creating a widget where consumers could do look-ups, and providing a downloadable database of the information–all of which proved tremendously popular. Starting this fall, the public will have access to a similar database containing details about all food, drug, and medical device recalls that occurred throughout the year, according to agency officials.

This database, which will be available to download in xml format, as well as via a searchable format online, will give such details as the product brand name, the company that manufactures the product, a description of the product, the problem that prompted the recall, and, if it’s available, a photo of the product, said Afia Asamoah, the FDA’s transparency initiative coordinator.

Such a database was one of several recommendations that the Sunlight Foundation made to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as part of its open government process. Access to recall data will allow reporters to determine if there are any trends in outbreaks or problems for particular companies, and then link that to lobbying these firms may have done on food and drug safety issues in Congress.

At present, the database will be include recalls occurring this calendar year, as well as those for high profile breakouts from the past such as the salmonella breakouts last year for peanut butter and pistachios.

The recall database will be folded into the Consumer Health Data Initiative (CDHI), which has already inspired many apps and mashups that open government advocates hope will help the the media and the public hold government accountable and improve health care. (Here are a few: Microsoft Bing has integrated CDHI data into its search engine, so that when a user searches for a hospital, the search returns quality of care information; GE’s “Healthy Imagination” uses CDHI data to power do-it-yourself data visualizations; and County Health Rankings, a project of the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, uses the data to rank counties by certain health care indicators.)

The recall data will be constrained by what the FDA itself receives. Because the agency only has limited authority in calling for a recall–most are done voluntarily by companies–it cannot require firms to submit specific information about a product to the agency.

In the agency’s recent transparency report, the agency recommends it be given the power to require companies to provide such basic information, including:  “the identity of the product that is being recovered or corrected, the estimated number of medical products (e.g., number of tablets or devices) or food items that are subject to recovery or correction, the reason for the action to recover or correct the product, and the geographic distribution of the product.”

Edited to add: Asamoah contacted us to clarify that the product recall information technically will not be available in a “database” but rather both online in tabular form, but also in XML format for anyone to download to use in different ways.