Food Recalls: What You Need to Know to Stay Safe
Food recalls are a fact of life. Learn what you can do to protect yourself
Given the recent number of recalls, it’s easy to wonder if food contamination cases are on the upswing. “Based on the raw data, I don’t know that you could really say that recalls related to contamination are on the rise,” says Benjamin Chapman, PhD, associate professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University.
But recalls don’t appear to be slowing down, either. In 2017, the FDA reported 456 food recalls. Of those, 218 were due to undeclared allergens. For instance, a food manufacturer might fail to list trace amounts of peanuts in its product. The bulk of the other 238 FDA-tracked food recalls were for microbiological pathogens, such as E. coli, with a few items recalled for foreign matter or pesticides.
One reason contamination can become so widespread is that a single ingredient involved in a recall may be used by multiple manufacturers.
Meat, pork and poultry are relatively frequent recall culprits. Last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tracked 131 recalls involving more than 20 million pounds of it. Poultry items, followed by pork, then beef were recalled the most often.
Foods that spoil easily aren’t the only offenders. In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversaw two recalls for tree nuts potentially contaminated with salmonella, a bacterium that can cause flu-like symptoms in those who ingest it.
“Salmonella is hardy, so it sticks around in low moisture foods like nuts,” say Chapman. ‘Many low-moisture foods are also high-fat, which helps to protect the pathogen when it enters the gut — meaning it takes fewer [salmonella] cells to make someone sick.”
What to do when a recall hits the news
Currently, there are two government agencies tracking food recalls. Meat, poultry and processed egg recalls are tracked by the USDA, while the FDA handles dairy, fruits, vegetables and food additives.
Consumers with questions and concerns about recalls can go to both the FDA and the USDA websites to find info about food recalls. Each recall notice includes information from the company involved with the recall and provides a detailed listing of recalled products, often cataloged in an easy-to-read tables, as well as photographs of the products’ packaging. You will also find lot numbers and sell-by dates where applicable.
Most company press releases contain the words “voluntary recall.” Although the FDA has the power to force a recall, “the FDA expects that it will only need to invoke this authority infrequently since the food industry is largely cooperative in conducting voluntary recalls of their own accord or after a formal request from the FDA,” says FDA Spokeswoman Juli Putnam.
If a recall is announced for a food that you eat, check your pantry or fridge carefully and throw out or return to the store any recalled items. People with vulnerable immune systems should ask their doctors for guidance about high-risk foods in general.
The website http://foodsafety.gov gives plenty of consumer advice about eating safely and covers the broadest recall actions, too.
To report a foodborne illness or other suspected problem, get in touch with your local state health agency, who will forward that info to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Or you can report it directly to the CDC by calling 1-800-CDC-INFO.