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Understanding Food Recalls

Photo Credit: Chad Baker/Jason Reed/Ryan McVay/Thinkstock

Food recalls happen fairly regularly. According to the FDA Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts there have been 230 recalls from January 1, 2015 to July 1, 2015. The most recent large-scale incident is the more than 6 million boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese being recalled for contamination with metal fragments.

As consumers it's easy to be either overwhelmed by the number of recalls or to not be fully aware of them. This article explains the various areas of responsibility for a food recall, the reasons why they happen, how they're classified, and resources for staying informed.

A recall starts when a federal agency or food company becomes aware of a problem with a food that may cause illness or harm to consumers. At that point government agencies and the food producer work together to remove the item from the market and out of consumers' homes, the grocery stores, and any warehouses where it might be stored. The majority of the food supply (approximately 80%), both domestic and international, is the responsibility of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  In January 2011 The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was passed. The biggest overhaul of the food system in 70 years, FSMA now grants the FDA the authority to both mandate a food recall as well as the ability to shut down operations at a food facility. The law emphasizes the prevention of food-borne illness, more frequent inspections, and increases the ability of the FDA to review imported foodstuffs. 

The remaining 20% falls under the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This agency is responsible for meat, poultry, and some egg products.

The major reasons for the recall of a food product include adulteration, misbranding, or contamination such as:

  • Pathogen contamination (E. coli, Listeria, or Salmonella)
  • Foreign object contamination with fragments of plastic, glass or metal
  • Undeclared allergens (in the product but not on the label), i.e.,  peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, shellfish, wheat, etc.
  • Undeclared sulfites
  • Uneviscerated fish
  • Pet food may be recalled if the nutrient profile is not correct on the label.

The severity of the problem determines the classification level for the recall. Classifications are assigned by whichever government agency (FDA or FSIS) is overseeing the recall. According to information from the FDA website these levels are:

Class I: Dangerous or defective products that predictably could cause serious health problems or death. Examples include: food found to contain botulinum toxin, food with undeclared allergens, a label mix-up on a lifesaving drug, or a defective artificial heart valve.

Class II: Products that might cause a temporary health problem, or pose only a slight threat of a serious nature. Example: a drug that is under-strength but that is not used to treat life-threatening situations.

Class III: Products that are unlikely to cause any adverse health reaction, but that violate FDA labeling or manufacturing laws. Examples include: a minor container defect and lack of English labeling in a retail food.

Problems with the food supply are discovered a number of different ways. Sometimes it is discovered by the food manufacturer in which case they file a voluntary request. If a government agency is the one who discovers the issue, they will request the item be removed from the market. The manufacturer is responsible for the recall and must submit a recall strategy for government approval. The government agency decides how serious the issue is, what actions need to be taken, and when the recall can be terminated. If necessary the notices will appear in the media and online in order to get the widest coverage possible to ensure a successful recall.  

Companies are allowed to submit a recall termination request once the product has been removed, corrective action taken, and the government believes the product can be approved as safe for consumption. At that time the government sends a written notification to the food producer notifying them that the recall has ended. 

Because of the complexity of the food supply system and with manufacturing issues there are, as referenced above, a large number of recalls that happen on a frequent basis. While quite a few recalls are non-life threatening, it makes sense to stay on top of what's happening with our food and to be informed. The following websites provide resources to search for food safety issues and recalls:

Mira Dessy aka The Ingredient Guru is a Certified Nutrition Educator and the author of The Pantry Principle: How to Read the Label and Understand What's Really in Your Food. She writes frequently about issues related to food and can be found online at http://facebook.com/MiraDessy


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