Anatomy of a food recall: The background and the bottom line

May 28, 2019

By Sharon McDonald, MEd, RD, LDN. This article was originally posted by the Penn State Extension Service on May 7th, 2019 and has been re-posted to the PathSensors blog. All credit goes to Sharon McDonald and the PennState Extension.

It seems we hear about food recalls more frequently. To understand what is happening let’s look at food recalls in terms of responsible government agencies, causes, classifications and regulations.

Government agencies
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates about 80 percent of the food supply which includes domestic and imported food and pet food. The other 20 percent specifically meat, poultry and some egg products are regulated by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention become involved when a state health department contacts them about the occurrence of a foodborne illness. The CDC in turn notifies either FDA or FSIS and an investigation begins to determine the food product involved. Additionally, manufacturers and/or distributors will contact FDA or FSIS directly if they identify a food safety problem in their operation or receive customer complaints about a contaminated product.

Food Recall Causes and Classifications
Typically, a food recall will occur because of pathogen contamination, physical contamination or misbranding of the food item.

  • Pathogens are disease causing microorganisms. The ones most familiar in terms of food recalls are SalmonellaE. Coli and Listeria. Contamination can occur at any point in the food chain from field to service.
  • Physical contaminates are items that don’t belong in a food such as a piece of plastic, glass or metal shavings. Again, this contamination can occur at any point in the food chain, but most likely occurs during the processing of the food item.
  • When the wrong label is put on a food or when allergens such as milk or nuts or food additives/colorings are not included on a label an item is misbranded and must be recalled.

Food recalls fall into one of three categories

  • Class I recalls are the most serious and are deemed likely to cause serious adverse health effects or death. This includes contamination with a pathogen and undeclared allergens (food that contains one or more major allergens but is not labeled as such).
  • Class II recalls indicate that consumption of the food could cause a temporary health hazard, or the likelihood of serious adverse health issues is remote. This may be Norovirus in seafood or botulinum potential.
  • Class III recalls might be items that have an incorrect weight, labeled as organic when it is not or a food that contains yeast or mold. In these situations, eating the food is unlikely to cause a health problem but rather violates regulations.

Increase in food recalls?
In April 2018, the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) released their report Trends in Food Recalls 2004-2013 which indicated a significant increase in food recalls during this time frame. ERS attributed this in part to the ever-increasing volume of food being sold in the United States. More importantly though are regulatory changes and advances in technology around detection and identification of pathogens which further enhanced our ability to control and monitor the safety of foods.

Food safety regulations
In 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was enacted and over the past 8 years various aspects of this legislation have been implemented. The goal, of FSMA is to strengthen our food safety system through prevention of problems throughout the food system, thus preventing foodborne illness. To this end food facilities have been required to implement preventative controls that look at potential risks within their facilities and identify and implement methods to control and eliminate these risks. In some cases, this means more testing of foods and the environment for pathogens or working with suppliers to assure the safety of the food before it is brought to the processing plant.

In the field and/or on the farm increased emphasis has been placed on good agriculture practices and produce safety by looking at potential contamination risks and prevention. This may include testing water sources, training workers on hygienic practices in harvesting and storage of fresh produce and development of food safety plans asked for by third party vendors.

These regulations impact all aspects of the food supply chain from harvest, transport, storage, processing, purchase and finally to the consumer. Obviously, the system is not perfect and human error still plays a role if the wrong label is placed on an item or a surface is not properly cleaned and sanitized. However, the hope is that the preventative controls that are in place will identify problems before food becomes available to the general public.

Technology
Whole genome sequencing (WGS) technology allows pathogens to be more accurately identified and results in quicker identification of the suspected food and facility from which it came, allowing for greater accuracy and speed when identifying a food item implicated in a recall.

Almost all recalls are done voluntarily by the manufacturer through notification to suppliers through the supply chain. Social media has greatly influenced the speed with which information is shared as well as the numbers of people receiving information. Now thousands more people hear about a food recall even if it does not impact them directly.

Given these factors it is difficult to say if there are truly more recalls or whether the processes and technology now available are uncovering problems that may have not been detected in the past. As consumers and the end point of the food system, be aware of food recalls that may impact you or your family and follow through on recommended procedures outlined in the recall notice. You can receive updates on the latest food recalls by registering at Foodsafety.gov. As always, in your home follow the key food safety tips of Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill to keep food safe!


Citations

About the author: Sharon McDonald, MEd, RD, LDN, is an extension educator at Penn State University who focuses on food safety and quality. Her areas of expertise include retail food safety; food safety for volunteer groups; home food preservation; home and consumer food safety; and nutrition.

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