How Food Recalls Work

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:].

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].