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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].

Causes and Types of Food Recalls

A worker inspects fish fillet on the production line of a seafood factory.
A worker inspects fish fillet on the production line of a seafood factory.
Monty Rakusen/Cultura/Getty Images

Most types of consumer products are recalled because they either fail to do what they're supposed to, or because they pose a hazard to the user. A common reason for food recalls is the presence of an illness-producing organism, like salmonella or E. coli, within the product. Also, allergens are sometimes accidentally included an item, which is a major no-no. Or, an allergen, like peanuts, nuts or eggs might not be listed on the product label despite being an ingredient, causing a necessary recall to avoid potentially serious reactions [source: FoodSafety.gov].

Occasionally, a manufacturing snafu will result in foreign materials, such as glass or metal, contaminating the product. Other recall-inducing culprits include uneviscerated fish (when the gut is not removed correctly, putting the consumer at risk of dangerous bacteria), undeclared sulfites (which can cause people who have asthma or are otherwise sensitive to sulfites to react dangerously) or nutritional imbalance, most commonly discovered in pet food products [sources: White-Cason, Food Safety News, FDA].

Because recalls pose varying degrees of threats, from mild to moderate to severe, each instance is assigned a specific class [source: Tyco]:

  • Class I: It's likely that exposure to the product can cause serious illness/health problems, even death.
  • Class II: Such a product will probably not cause serious health problems, but can result in temporary, treatable issues.
  • Class III: Still not ideal, but unlikely to cause health problems/reactions.

"There's not one specific food type that's recalled more than anything else," says William Griffin, public health analyst with the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Major and dangerous recalls tend to make a huge splash in the news, but the vast majority is not widely publicized [source: White-Cason]. "It depends on recall classification and distribution of the product," Griffin explains. In most cases, no illnesses are reported at the time a food item is recalled.

The number of food recalls in the U.S. quadrupled between 2007 and 2012. Reasons for the spike include an increasingly global food supply chain and greater food-safety regulation due to some highly publicized cases including a salmonella outbreak at a peanut factory in Georgia in 2009, which killed nine people and sickened 714 others. The factory owners were found guilty of fraud and conspiracy, the first felony convictions for company executives in a food-safety case [sources: Tyco, Basu].

The Food Recall Process

Not every suspected issue winds up requiring a large-scale recall. "Once the recall management technical analysis staff is notified of a potential recall we request additional information," Griffin explains, of the process of determining whether such measures are necessary. "We need to know why the problem occurred. Then we have to apply critical thinking and make an analysis of the information." Once the company and necessary agencies understand the situation, they activate and classify the recall, if needed.

Recalls can be initiated in several ways. Sometimes, inspection of a facility uncovers fodder for recall, or issues are discovered through random FSIS or FDA testing/sampling. When illness(s) appear to be caused by a particular product, state health departments typically enlist the help of federal agencies to investigate. As already mentioned, most recalls are actually begun by the manufacturing company, which has a vested interest in protecting consumers, as well as minimizing cost and damage.

The FDA oversees recalls involving all food products except for poultry, meat and certain egg products, which are handled by FSIS (a division of the USDA). Once the need for a recall has been brought to their attention by the manufacturer/supplier/distributor, the agency (typically a local or district arm) is tasked with overseeing the company's efforts to correct the issue. "They work with the recalling firm as far as implementation of the recall," says Griffin. "Once the establishment has tried to get all of the product that they can back out of commerce, they contact the district office and verify that it has been destroyed or is no longer available." The appropriate agency then reviews the data and other information, determines that the threat has been mitigated and closes out the situation. Ideally, the affected company will then take steps to ensure that the error is not repeated.

Responding to Food Recalls

Truly enormous recalls are difficult to miss, even if you want to. Notices show up on social media and other news outlets almost instantly, complete with specific details regarding how to identify whether you have an affected product. The level of publicity also depends largely on how severe/dangerous the issue is, how widely the product has been distributed and even who it was intended for. For example, formula or other foods intended for babies or children will cause more of a stir, due to the vulnerable state of the audience.

Smart companies typically react swiftly and with authority to lessen the potential for disaster in such situations. In 2015, Beech-Nut Nutrition enacted a voluntary recall of baby food after receiving a report of one oral injury caused by glass fragments in the jar. Although less than 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms) of product were affected (about 768 cases), the company initiated a nationwide alert to parents and retailers who stock the jars [source: ABC News]. In a separate case, the FDA stepped in and warned people with peanut allergies to avoid cumin and products containing the spice during a 2015 scare, due to unintentional contamination [source: HealthDay].

Consumers are encouraged to keep a watchful eye on all types of recalls that can impact health. Fortunately, the government has gotten with the times and offers frequently updated recall databases on FoodSafety.gov, as well as the FDA site. Users can even follow pertinent agencies like FSIS on Twitter, or sign up to receive instant alerts via text or email when a recall is issued, with special consideration to food allergy recalls.

The process for returning affected food is actually pretty easy. Identifying factors, such as batch number or expiration date, are listed in the basic recall information, so it's a cinch to survey your pantry or fridge to locate affected products. If you do have one or more, most manufacturers direct consumers to return them to the store of purchase for a full refund or exchange, whichever you prefer. Definitely pay attention to the instructions on your specific recall, however, to avoid confusion.

Shelley Betz of Kennesaw, Georgia, narrowly avoided the opportunity to return Kraft Macaroni & Cheese products affected by a 2015 metal contamination recall. "When I heard about the recall I almost didn't go check my pantry," says Shelley, who was shocked to discover affected products on her shelves. "I was a bit nervous to take it back to the grocery store, but the exchange process was easy, quick and seamless."

Author's Note: How Food Recalls Work

My 3-year-old practically lives on hummus, so you can imagine my dismay when I discovered a listeria-induced recall on the exact brand we adore. Fortunately, our containers were not affected, so Kenny didn't experience so much as a hiccup in his consumption of the chickpea-based dip.

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Sources

  • ABC News. "Beech-Nut Nutrition Recalls Baby Food After Glass Found in Jar." April 15, 2015 (April 16, 2015) http://abcnews.go.com/US/beech-nut-nutrition-recalls-baby-food-glass-found/story?id=30327417
  • American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Pet Food Recalls." 2015 (April 16, 2015) https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/pet-food-recalls
  • Betz, Shelley. Interview via e-mail. April 16, 2015.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "CDC Estimates of Foodborne Illness in the United States." Jan. 8, 2014 (April 16, 2015) http://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/2011-foodborne-estimates.html
  • Clean Rental. "Infographic: Food Industry Worth $2.45T By Next Year." Food Manufacturing. Aug. 8, 2014 (April 16, 2015) http://www.foodmanufacturing.com/news/2014/08/infographic-food-industry-worth-245t-next-year
  • Food and Drug Adminstration. "2013 Annual Report on Food Facilities, Food Imports, and FDA Foreign Offices." November 2013 (April 16, 2015) http://www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation/fsma/ucm376478.htm
  • Food and Drug Adminstration. "Best Foods Inc. Issues Alert on Undeclared Sulfites." March 27, 2015 (April 16, 2015) http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/ucm440295.htm
  • Food Desk. "Fish Recalled for Botulism Risk." Food Safety News. Oct. 9, 2012 (April 16, 2015) http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/10/fish-recalled-for-botulism-risk/#.VS-8XBtFA5s
  • FoodSafety.gov. "Recalls and Alerts." 2015 (April 16, 2015) http://www.foodsafety.gov/recalls/
  • Griffin, William. Public health analyst with the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Telephone interview, April 16, 2015.
  • HealthDay. "Huge Food Recall After Peanut Traces Found in Cumin." WebMD. Feb. 19, 2015 (April 16, 2015) http://www.webmd.com/news/20150219/recall-peanut-cumin
  • Tyco Integrated Security. "Food Defense White Paper Series: Part Two." 2015 (April 16, 2015) https://www.tycois.com/wps/wcm/connect/ab4fd1f4-4aa2-45a3-a4f1-b91b36539e0f/LT1000-02FoodDefenseWP_Part2_hireresDigital.pdf?MOD=AJPERES
  • White-Cason, Jessica. "Understanding Food Recalls: The Recall Process Explained." Food Safety News. Aug. 12, 2013 (April 16, 2015) http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2013/08/understanding-food-recalls-the-recall-process-explained/#.VS8UhBtFA5u