Food and Drug Administration Recall Policies


(This brochure provides a discussion of the policies of the Food and Drug Administration and the procedures that are to be used by firms in conducting recalls of violative products that are regulated by the Agency)

The recall of a defective or possibly harmful consumer product often is highly publicized in newspapers and on news broadcasts. This is especially true when a recall involves foods, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, and other products regulated by FDA.

Despite this publicity, FDA's role in conducting a recall often is misunderstood not only by consumers, but also by the news media, and occasionally even by the regulated industry. The following headlines, which appeared in two major daily newspapers, are good examples of that misunderstanding: "FDA Orders Peanut Butter Recall," and "FDA Orders 6,500 Cases of Red-Dyed Mints Recalled." The headlines are wrong in indicating that the Agency can "order" a recall. FDA has no authority under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to order a recall, although it can request a firm to recall a product.

Most recalls of products regulated by FDA are carried out voluntarily by the manufacturers or distributors of the product. In some instances, a company discovers that one of its products is defective and recalls it entirely on its own. In others, FDA informs a company of findings that one of its products is defective and suggests or requests a recall. Usually, the company will comply; if it does not, then FDA can seek a court order authorizing the Federal Government to seize the product.

This cooperation between FDA and its regulated industries has proven over the years to be the quickest and most reliable method to remove potentially dangerous products from the market. This method has been successful because it is in the interest of FDA, as well as industry, to get unsafe and defective products out of consumer hands as soon as possible.

FDA has guidelines for companies to follow in recalling defective products that fall under the Agency's jurisdiction. These guidelines make clear that FDA expects these firms to take full responsibility for product recalls, including follow-up checks to assure that recalls are successful.

Under the guidelines, companies are expected to notify FDA when recalls are started, to make progress reports to FDA on recalls, and to undertake recalls when asked to do so by the Agency.

The guidelines also call on manufacturers and distributors to develop contingency plans for product recalls that can be put into effect if and when needed. FDA's role under the guidelines is to monitor company recalls and assess the adequacy of a firm's action. After a recall is completed, FDA makes sure that the product is destroyed or suitably reconditioned and investigates why the product was defective.

The guidelines categorize all recalls into one of three classes according to the level of hazard involved. Class I recalls are for dangerous or defective products that predictably could cause serious health problems or death. Examples of products that could fall into this category are a food found to contain botulinal toxin, a label mix-up on a lifesaving drug, or a defective artificial heart valve.

Class II recalls are for products that might cause a temporary health problem, or pose only a slight threat of a serious nature. One example is a drug that is understrength but that is not used to treat life-threatening situations.

Class III recalls are for products that are unlikely to cause any adverse health reaction, but that violate FDA regulations. An example might be bottles of aspirin that contains 90 tablets instead of the 100 stated on the label.

FDA develops a strategy for each individual recall that sets forth how extensively it will check on a company's performance in recalling the product in question. For a Class I recall, for example, FDA would check to make sure that each defective product has been recalled or reconditioned. In contrast, for a Class III recall the Agency may decide that it only needs to spot check to make sure the product is off the market.

Even though the firm recalling the product may issue a press release, FDA seeks publicity about a recall only when it believes the public needs to be alerted about a serious hazard. For example, if a canned food product, purchased by a consumer at a retail store, is found by FDA to contain botulinal toxin, an effort would be made to retrieve all the cans in circulation, including those in the hands of consumers. As part of this effort the Agency also could issue a public warning via the news media to alert as many consumers as possible to the potential hazard.

FDA also issues general information about all new recalls it is monitoring through a weekly publication (FDA Enforcement Report) which is available for purchase from the Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, Telephone 202-783-3238.

*FDA/Industry Affairs Staff Brochure: 1994

Hypertext updated 8/12/97