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How Food Recalls Work

        Health | Food Safety

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (D-OR) holds a sample of recalled food products during a hearing on the salmonella outbreak associated with peanut butter in 2009.
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (D-OR) holds a sample of recalled food products during a hearing on the salmonella outbreak associated with peanut butter in 2009.
Kevin Clark/Washington Post/Getty Images

My idea of a great side dish is mashed potatoes or sautéed spinach, not a heaping helping of listeria or glass fragments. Fortunately for me and anyone else who enjoys eating, the elaborate U.S. food recall system is designed to prevent the distribution or consumption of food items that have been contaminated or are otherwise compromised. United States food recalls are generally instituted when a distributor or manufacturer becomes aware that a particular product packs the potential for making consumers sick [source: FoodSafety.gov].

Occasionally, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initiates the request for recall, but most manufacturers and suppliers are so proactive that they don't have to [source: White-Cason]. Instead, these government agencies work in concert with others like Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to set the standard for food production companies. Between them, they conduct inspections, investigate potential or apparent outbreaks, scrutinize safety processes for both imported and domestically produced food, complete food-related research and otherwise keep a sharp eye on the industry as a whole [source: FDA].

The size and complexity of the global food industry sometimes allows issues to slip through the cracks, in the form of contamination or other manufacturing problems. Hundreds of food recalls are issued each year, affecting products such as baby food, formula, dog food, macaroni and cheese, and my beloved spinach. The impact of these recalls can be devastating to both consumers and the companies that produce the products. According to the CDC, 48 million Americans per year are sickened by foodborne diseases, with 128,000 requiring hospitalization. Sadly, 3,000 die annually.

Although most of these deaths are not attributable to recalled food items, it's safe to say that what we eat and how it's handled has a major impact on our collective well-being. Food companies often struggle in the aftermath of a recall, taking serious hits to reputation and profit. In fact, companies lose an average of $10 million per recall in direct costs alone, including the cost of retrieving the offensive goods, notifying government agencies/the public, internal investigation of the problem's origin and other related tasks. On top of that, they suffer serious, sometimes irreversible reputation damage [source: Tyco].


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