We expect food to be safe when making purchases at grocery stores and dining in restaurants. In fact, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2019 Food and Health Survey found that approximately 70 percent of consumers are somewhat or very confident in the safety of our food supply. However, we sometimes face that all-too-familiar yet oddly puzzling term, “food recall,” in the media. Many of us may wonder, “How could this happen?” or “Why isn’t my food safe?” But a food recall doesn’t mean we should lack trust in the safety of our food system. Let’s take a closer look at what a recall is and what to do when our food is recalled. Spoiler alert: The answer is not to panic!
What is a food recall?
A food recall is the removal of a food product from the marketplace due to a potential hazard in that product. These hazards might include contamination by a bacteria like Salmonella or Listeria; the presence of a physical contaminant like broken glass or metal; or improper labeling of a common allergen as an ingredient. Ben Chapman,PhD, a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, spoke with the IFIC Foundation and notes that the most common type of recall is this third type: mislabeling, which generally is not an issue for consumers without food allergies. Bacterial contamination is the next most common cause of recalls. However, Dr. Chapman points out that bacteria-based recalls are not necessarily the result of increased contamination; instead they’re a reflection of better food production. “The more we look for Listeria, the more we’re going to find it,” Chapman says. That is, improvements in detection methods and technology in food manufacturing have been able to detect harmful bacteria sooner, often before too many (if any) people get sick.
What happens when there is a food recall?
A recall is often initiated by the contaminated food’s manufacturer or distributor, but it may also be mandated by a government agency, such as the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). When the contamination is discovered, the producer must remove the affected products from the marketplace and prevent the problem from spreading. If the producers don’t take action, FDA and USDA-FSIS may step in to seize products that the producers don’t recall. Dr. Chapman has discussed the need for a food safety culture throughout the entire food industry, as it’s often on the part of producers and distributors to keep our food supply safe. While government agencies are diligent in protecting our food supply through regulations and inspections, the reality is that they aren’t in the factories every day. And while the majority of manufacturers consistently practice safe food protocols, the necessity for recalls can still arise. To help advance both government and food-producer efforts to make our food safe, in April 2019 the FDA launched the New Era of Smarter Food Safety. This effort encourages discussions and analyses of food safety culture across public and private industries to ensure a safer food system. The long-term goal is to establish a food system that consumers can depend on to be as safe, healthy and abundant as possible.
How do manufacturers and regulators know exactly what’s contaminated?
Since food is grown, packaged, and distributed all over the country, it’s sometimes difficult to identify where the contamination first starts. Let’s use romaine lettuce as an example. On one given day, you might buy a head of fresh lettuce at the store, purchase a packaged salad kit that includes romaine, and eat a sandwich from a deli with a romaine leaf on it. The romaine on those three food items may come from three different farms, and possibly from three different states. If you ate that sandwich on Tuesday, prepared the salad kit on Wednesday, and got sick from Salmonella on Thursday, any of the three products could be the cause—either due to eating the foods or simply from the transfer of bacteria from touching the products and not thoroughly washing your hands.
This example showcases the greatest obstacle to a food recall—the pace at which food can be pulled from stores and supply trucks. Identifying which product is contaminated can be challenging when stores are sourcing from a number of farms and consumers are shopping at several stores. The FDA directly addresses these challenges in its New Era of Smarter Food Safety by emphasizing the utilization of new and upcoming technology to improve the tracking of food and contaminants. This approach includes the use of blockchain and artificial intelligence to increase traceability within the food supply. Through improved tracing, the FDA can expeditiously identify which foods need to be recalled and which ones remain safe, thereby improving the efficiency of the food recall process.
What do I do if I buy recalled food?
For starters, wait—don’t eat it, share it, donate it, or feed it to your pet. Next, Dr. Chapman recommends checking out why the product was recalled to help with your decision-making. For example, if the product is recalled for mislabeled allergens, and you don’t have any food allergies, you don’t need to worry about that recall. Since mislabeled products are the most common source of recalls, Dr. Chapman advises thoroughly reading ingredient labels if you have a food allergy and recognizing which ingredients may be harmful for you. Even if the packaging doesn’t state “May contain peanuts” on the front, the ingredient list will reliably tell you what’s in that product.
If a product is recalled for bacterial or physical contamination, you should not eat it. Instead, try returning it to the store where you bought it—many grocery stores will offer a refund for recalled foods. Or, more simply, throw it away. To give you more peace of mind, the FDA has a handy website where you can both track and sign up to receive recall alerts. In addition, tools like the FoodKeeper app may help you understand how to avoid foodborne illness as a consumer.
Although there’s a lot of information to digest when it comes to food safety, remember that the U.S. food supply is safer now more than ever, and there are many tools at hand to keep us informed.
This blog post was written by Courtney Schupp, MPH, RD, our 2019 Sylvia Rowe Fellow.