When it comes to feeding the U.S. population, it’s vital that our government prioritizes food safety and ensures that our food supply chain is safe. Documentaries such as “Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food,” media headlines about wood fragments in cookies and E. Coli in spinach, and stories of social media influencers getting sick from Tara flour have helped lead to public uproar and a push for stronger food safety standards. But it’s important to know that generally, the food supply in the United States is known as “one of the safest in the world”—an assessment you can trust. One of the reasons behind this low level of risk is the consistent, standard monitoring practices exercised by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These regular inspections quickly identify and correct violations in food safety standards that may lead to a food recall.
Food recalls can incite confusion and fear, but a product can be taken off the shelf for a variety of reasons. Food can be recalled from the national supply chain when the U.S. government has identified possible contamination with disease-causing microorganisms, the presence of a foreign object, or a lack of proper labeling of a major allergen. Usually, food recalls are voluntarily initiated by a food company, but the FDA and USDA may also initiate the process. The FDA oversees this regulation for most food products—with the exception of meat, poultry, and processed egg products, which the USDA regulates. The purpose of these recalls is to help prevent possible illness or injury, especially for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, have weakened immune systems, are very young or elderly, or have other special health considerations that make them more vulnerable to foodborne illness. If you have consumed a product that has been recalled and you have symptoms of a foodborne illness, it’s advised to contact your healthcare provider immediately. In the case of an allergic reaction, seek medical attention immediately or dial 911. It’s also encouraged to report the incident to your local public health department, and/or the company that makes the food product in question, to help provide data that shows the public-health impact of the issue.
When you first hear about a food recall, it’s important to check your pantry, fridge, freezer, and other food-storage areas for any amount of the recalled product. Recall notices are very specific, and generally include the product name, brand, container codes, and container size. If you have a recalled product, do not use the product or give it to others, including pets. Instead, manufacturers will allow you to return it to the store for a refund. If you prefer to toss the item right away, make sure to wrap the contaminated item before putting it in the trash. You can also take a picture of the product or bring the receipt to the store for a refund. For any surface that had been in contact with the recalled product, make sure to wash and sanitize the area and to wash your hands immediately after handling it.
Some companies strive to be especially transparent about recalled items. For example, certain grocery store chains often notify consumers of a recall through signage at the registers. Recalls can happen fairly often, but their severity varies. The FDA and USDA use the following recall classifications for recalls to better describe the level of health hazard.
- Class I recalls mean there is a greater chance the product will cause serious adverse health consequences (or even death). When a food recall is due to a bacterial or chemical contamination, the symptoms may be more severe, and transmission can be harder to detect and monitor. Examples of Class I recalls include raw ground beef contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7, Salmonella in ready-to-eat foods, and undeclared allergens that can cause severe effects.
- Class II recalls occur when the product may cause temporary or medically reversable adverse health consequences, or when there’s less of a chance of serious adverse health consequences. Examples of class II recalls include possible foreign matter contamination, undeclared allergens, possible norovirus contamination, and undeclared color additives.
- Class III recalls happen when the product in violation is unlikely to cause adverse health consequences, but risk is still present. Examples of class III recalls include incorrect food labels, possible production in unsanitary conditions, and the presence of mold.
- Market withdrawals happen when the product is removed or corrected due to a minor violation, such as not meeting some quality standards.
The good news is that there are many notification outlets these days that help the public become aware—and quickly—of any possible recall. Consumers can subscribe to the FDA subscription service; and the FDA enforcement report shows all FDA regulated product recalls. USDA-–regulated product recalls can be found at the USDA’s Recalls and Public Health Alerts homepage. There are also, sometimes, public warnings via media outlet coverage, but these don’t cover every recall. To help protect yourself, stay up to date on the latest recalls and check your food storage regularly for any recalled item. The nonprofit Partnership for Food Safety Education has an especially informative resource that describes what to look for on a food product to determine whether or not it’s part of a recall.
Practice these practical safe food-handling tips to reduce the risk of foodborne illness for you and your family:
Clean: Make sure to properly wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food, and to clean surfaces often throughout the cooking process. Thorough cleaning includes washing your cutting boards, dishes, cooking utensils, and counters with hot soapy water.
Separate: Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs separate from other foods to help prevent cross-contamination. Use one cutting board for fresh produce and additional, different ones for other foods.
Cook: Know the safe internal temperature for any individual food and cook it until this temperature is reached. If you’re cooking in a microwave or oven, cover the food, stir it, and rotate it regularly to ensure there are no cold spots in the food in which bacteria could live. When reheating leftover sauces, soups, and gravy, bring them to a boil.
Chill: Put perishable food in the refrigerator as soon as possible to help slow the growth of dangerous bacteria. Make sure your fridge isn’t overfilled and that it maintains a constant temperature of 40oF or below. If you have food out for serving in your home, put it away within two hours (or within one hour if it’s a hot environment, like outside in the summer). To safely thaw frozen food, put it in the fridge, run it under cold water, or thaw it in the microwave—just make sure never to thaw food at room temperature!
The good news is that there are many notification outlets these days that help the public become aware—and quickly—of any possible recall. Consumers can subscribe to the FDA subscription service; and the FDA enforcement report which shows all FDA regulated product recalls. USDA-–regulated product recalls can be found at the USDA’s Recalls and Public Health Alerts homepage. There are also, sometimes, public warnings via media outlet coverage, but these don’t cover every recall. To help protect yourself, stay up to date on the latest news and information about food recalls from both USDA, FDA, and your retailer. Finally, check your fridge and pantry for products that may have been part of a food recall. Who knows? This small check of your fridge and pantry might help reduce your risk of getting sick.
This article was written by Debbie Fetter, PhD.