Last November, if you whipped up a cake using certain kinds of Duncan Hines cake mix, prepared a meal with Jennie-O brand ground turkey, or nibbled on romaine lettuce, you might have run the risk of contracting a foodborne illness.
Each of these products was the focus of a recall due to concerns about contamination by salmonella or E. coli.
Food recalls really do seem like an everyday occurrence. That’s largely because a slew of familiar, trusted foods that routinely show up on our dinner tables, in our refrigerators, at the restaurants we frequent and in our pantries — Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal (salmonella), McDonald’s salads (a microscopic parasite called cyclospora) and Gold Medal unbleached flour (salmonella), just to name a few — were all affected by recalls in recent months.
“It seems like no food is safe anymore,” said Adam Garber, consumer watchdog for U.S. PIRG, an organization that advocates for consumers’ interests and rights. He is the co-author of a January 2019 report titled “How Safe Is Our Food?,” which examines food recall statistics and trends and makes recommendations about increasing the safety of our food supply.
That report states that between 2013 and 2018, food recalls increased 10 percent and there was an 83 percent increase in Class I meat and poultry recalls. (Class I recalls involve something likely to cause serious injury or death.) All recalls of meat and poultry, the report mentions, increased by 67 percent. Recalls of produce and processed foods remained almost level, with only a 2 percent increase from 2013.
In an interview, Garber said, “The onus is on the food safety system [to protect us] because we can’t do it ourselves.” Recalls are one key mechanism utilized in the food safety system. Consumers can’t detect the presence of pathogens like e. coli, salmonella and listeria because those bacterial pathogens do not alter the appearance, smell, or taste of food.
We therefore have to rely on the constant vigilance of experts at the federal agencies responsible for overseeing food safety, as well as the food manufacturers and distributors that can trigger recalls themselves if they become aware of a problem. Most recalls are conducted voluntarily, although the FDA can initiate a mandatory recall process when necessary.
What are food recalls, how are they implemented, and how should we interpret the number of them? Furthermore, what can consumers do to be up-to-date on the latest food recalls?
The two mainstays of this nation’s food safety system are the US Department of Agriculture and the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the Food and Drug Administration. According to USDA spokeswoman Veronika Pfaeffle, “FSIS only regulates meat, poultry, and processed egg products. The FDA regulates everything else that is food-related [including pet food and domestic and imported foods] and therefore they are in charge of those recalls.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also plays a key role by working with local, state, and federal agencies to investigate outbreaks of illnesses caused by contaminated food. State health departments can inform the CDC of an outbreak of illness suspected to be caused by food. The CDC would then notify either the USDA or the FDA.
‘The purpose of a recall,” said Pfaeffle, “is to remove affected product from commerce to protect consumers.” The FSIS usually sends out a press release to the media when something is the subject of a recall and announces it on social media like Twitter.
The next step in the recall process, explained Pfaeffle, is for the establishment involved in the recall to notify retailers who are selling the product and advise them to withdraw it from circulation as soon as possible. The FSIS performs checks to see that those instructions are heeded.
The FDA follows similar recall procedures. There are various channels by which the FDA can become aware of concerns about a food product, such as being notified by a company that suspects a problem, conducting an FDA inspection of a food-producing facility that raises concerns, and being contacted by the CDC.
Not every FDA recall is announced in the media. However, all of them are noted in the FDA’s weekly Enforcement Report.
Although the number of food recalls these days is unsettling, it may not be quite as alarming as you think. It’s actually an indication that technological methods of detecting hazardous impurities and contamination in food have improved significantly, some experts say.
“Technology has allowed us to better monitor, respond to and target food problems,” said FDA spokesperson Peter Cassell. “The majority of recalls are done out of an abundance of caution.” He added that most Class 1 food recalls are done on the basis of allergen issues, such as an ingredient omission on labeling or misidentification of an allergen like eggs or peanuts on a product’s label. For someone who is allergic to those or other foods like wheat or soy, the consequences of eating them can be very serious, even potentially life-threatening.
Certain circumstances have increased the high profile of food recalls, making them appear more widepsead. The fact that many foods associated with household-name brands have been recalled ramps up the amount of media coverage, Cassell noted. When the public hears that instantly-recognizable brands have been yanked off grocery store shelves or restaurant menus, most of us, along with the national press, take notice.
Multi-state recalls, multiple lots of products being recalled and international recalls are big attention-getters. One case in point involved canned Del Monte Fiesta Corn with Red & Green Peppers, which was recalled in 25 states and 12 foreign countries in December 2018 due to under-processing. That can create an environment favorable to the growth of dangerous bacteria.
What all this boils down to is that “food safety requires a herculean effort,” said Dr. Darin S. Detwiler, assistant dean of the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, who has spent the past 26 years advocating for food safety and is a nationally-known expert on the topic.
A food policy consultant, speaker, trainer, and corporate consultant, Detwiler knows all too well what lethal harm foodborne illnesses can wreak.
In the early 1990s, when Detwiler and his family lived in Washington State, his 16-month-old son, Riley, contracted E. coli 0157:H7 from another child he had contact with at the same daycare center. That youngster’s parents both worked at a Jack in the Box fast food restaurant. At the time, that restaurant chain was dealing with an outbreak of E. coli linked to beef in hamburger being served there.
The other child and his mother both became sick. The boy passed the highly-communicable illness on to Detwiler’s son. On February 20, 1993, Riley died after fighting for his life for 23 days. He was one of more than 600 people affected by that E. coli outbreak in four states.
Motivated by the tragedy in his family, Detwiler now says that it will take “strength, work, and courage” from all stakeholders from farm to fork to reduce the likelihood of such massive foodborne illness outbreaks from happening again.
Complacency is not an option. “Foodborne pathogens do not discriminate,” Detwiler cautions. “Everyone can get sick.”
Methods of pinpointing the sources of tainted foods and promptly informing the appropriate regulatory agencies, along with the public, have gotten better. Food recalls are helping to keep those tainted foods away from unsuspecting consumers. The U.S. PIRG report says that recalls are “the last line of defense in our food system.” Still, even with the advances that have been made, here is still plenty more that can be done to keep us safe.
“We’re catching more [contaminated food] with more recalls,” said Deirdre Schlunegger, CEO of Stop Foodborne Illness, a Chicago-based nonprofit public health organization. “The CDC has made a lot of progress in their technology. We’re moving in the right direction.”
Judy Bass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.