FDA's Oversight of the 1982 Canned Salmon Recalls

HRD-84-77: Published: Sep 12, 1984. Publicly Released: Sep 24, 1984.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the conduct of a recall of canned Alaskan salmon that occurred in 1982, focusing on: (1) the role of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the recall; (2) the basis for the recall; (3) the adequacy of processes followed in the recall; (4) the adequacy of assurance received by FDA that recalled salmon was removed from the market and reconditioned or destroyed; (5) corrective measures taken by Alaskan canneries to prevent problems similar to the one that triggered the recall; and (6) the impact of the recall on the salmon industry.

GAO found that the FDA investigation that ended in the recall was triggered when a Belgian man died after eating canned Alaskan salmon that was contaminated by botulinum toxin. The salmon became contaminated because defective canning equipment made a hole in the can in which it was packaged. FDA found that the equipment used by 31 Alaskan canneries could produce similar defects and agreed with the cannery industry to check a sample of each cannery's production. The agreement further provided that any cannery that was found to have produced defective cans would recall its entire 1980 and 1981 production of salmon. Nine canneries eventually agreed to recall their 1980 and 1981 production of salmon. GAO also found that: (1) two canneries that did not participate in the recall should possibly have done so; and (2) in two instances, recalled salmon was returned to the market without being reprocessed or repacked. In addition, GAO found that: (1) the salmon recalls resulted in a decline of salmon prices and the loss to the salmon industry of about 6 months worth of sales; (2) canneries that participated in the recall incurred costs of about $10 to $15 per case of recalled salmon; (3) FDA spent $9 million and used about 220 staff years in the recall effort; and (4) virtually the entire salmon industry has taken action to upgrade quality controls.

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