The Anatomy of a Food Recall

Illustration composite by Mental Floss. Egg carton: iStock
Illustration composite by Mental Floss. Egg carton: iStock

The U.S. is still reeling from a widespread salmonella outbreak that has seen a handful of foods disappear from supermarket shelves and restaurant menus this summer. So far this year, the bacteria has been linked to nearly a dozen products, including raw turkey, pre-cut melon, shell eggs, frozen shredded coconut, chicken salad, raw sprouts, and Honey Smacks cereal.

Although food recalls are ever-present in the news, statistics show they aren’t necessarily on the rise. Annual food recalls tend to fluctuate from year to year, but in 2017 there were 2945 recalls—854 fewer than there were in 2010. Meat recalls, which are handled separately from other foods, have also fluctuated since 2010. In that time period, there have been as few as 70 recalls in a year and as many as 150.

Of the nearly 3000 food recalls reported by the FDA in 2017, only 16.5 percent were considered Class I, meaning that there is a reasonable probability that consumption or exposure to a food will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.

Still, foodborne illnesses are a serious issue that affect an estimated 48 million people each year, or around one in six Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), leading to approximately 128,000 hospitalizations and 3000 deaths annually. Preventing these illnesses, or catching them before they become an epidemic, is the challenge governmental bodies tasked with protecting consumers and keeping our food safe undertake—a most serious matter when lives are at stake.

But how do they know when a product is unsafe, and when exactly are foods pulled from store shelves? To answer those questions, we've broken down the food recall process into a few steps.

CONTAMINATION DISCOVERY

Health issues within the food supply chain can be discovered in several different ways. Sometimes a manufacturer detects an issue while doing internal sampling and opts to voluntarily recall a product. The specific sampling method that's used depends on the type of pathogen that's being tested for, but federal guidelines outline how a company should handle food safety.

For instance, the FDA's guide to listeria detection recommends that companies take both environmental samples (swabbing a surface or assembly line, for instance, to check for the presence of harmful bacteria) as well as samples of ready-to-eat foods through "hold and test" procedures [PDF]. Testing can be done either in-house or by an outside lab, and the frequency of sampling depends on the risk for that particular pathogen. However, at the very least, sampling should be done on at least a monthly or quarterly basis.

Other times, a government agency learns about an issue through routine product sampling, during inspections of a manufacturing facility, or after receiving complaints. When papaya was linked to salmonella last November, the FDA took samples along the food supply chain and used whole genome sequencing—a technology that analyzes the DNA "fingerprints" of an organism—to create a “genetic family tree of the pathogens to see where they came from,” FDA spokesman Peter Cassell tells Mental Floss. That information then gets uploaded to an international network called GenomeTrakr, which allowed the FDA to identify four farms in Mexico as the source of contamination and distinguish between the four outbreaks.

Health officials at the state, local, and international levels use the database to compare data, and agencies like the FDA, USDA, and CDC use it to match sample results with known clusters of illnesses, Cassell says. This technology became available in 2008, but the network improved in 2013, at which time the practice was standardized.

When contamination isn't immediately caught by a company or government agency, no one will be aware of it until people start getting sick. That's what happened in April, when 11 people were hospitalized with salmonella poisoning.

TRACEBACK

In that case, the CDC reported the issue and worked with the FDA to figure out what was causing the illness.

“When someone gets sick and they go to the doctor, the doctor will take samples from them, it goes to a lab, and that gets reported to the CDC,” Cassell explains. “Once they see that picture of widespread illness, we start working on ‘traceback,’ which is trying to figure out what all those people ate in common.”

During April's salmonella outbreak, government agencies and health partners interviewed patients and learned that they had all consumed eggs. By collecting and analyzing detailed records of what the patients had eaten and where the products had come from, the FDA was able to pinpoint Rose Acre Farms—the second largest egg producer in the U.S.—as a potential source of contamination, and specifically a farm in Hyde County, North Carolina. The FDA then conducted a traceback investigation, which involved visiting a company facility and collecting samples for testing. Those samples came back positive for salmonella.

“It’s all detective work to try to figure out what exactly caused someone to get sick,” Cassell says. Traceback investigations involve working backwards through the supply chain to determine the root of the problem, which is especially challenging when it comes to perishable items like fruits and veggies because “lot numbers and grower identifications are not routinely used or recorded on shipping records,” according to the FDA’s traceback guide.

“There’s the assumption that all these records are electronic, and in some cases they’re not,” Cassell says.

In the case of Rose Acre Farms, what ensued was a voluntary recall of over 200 million eggs. Almost all food recalls are voluntarily initiated by a company, as opposed to being initiated by a government agency. (However, it’s worth noting that in many cases, companies have already been told by a governmental body that one of their foods is problematic, and the FDA has the authority to mandate a recall in certain cases. So although it’s considered “voluntary,” companies don’t really have much of a choice in the matter.)

Companies are typically cooperative during the traceback process, though. When two people in Florida opened their Walmart salad in 2017 and found a dead bat lying inside, Walmart launched its own investigation. The company was able to link the deceased creature to a specific production number and best-if-used-by date, and only a small shipment of Organic Marketside Spring Mix had to be recalled.

The source isn't always so easy to determine, though. The recent romaine lettuce scare, which was linked to the biggest E. coli outbreak in over a decade, was one such case. Five people died, 210 fell ill, and 96 were hospitalized, including 27 who suffered from kidney failure. First reported in mid-March, the outbreak swept through 36 states and wasn’t officially declared over until June 28.

As Vox reported, health officials knew that the lettuce was linked to contaminated canal water in Yuma, Arizona, but they couldn’t determine the exact source.

“We didn’t have a common supplier, distributor, or manufacturer identified,” Cassell says. For that reason, the lettuce could not be recalled because there was no particular company to hold accountable, and the system doesn't permit an entire industry to be incriminated when the source of the problem hasn't been discovered. Instead, the FDA did the next best thing and released a public warning telling consumers to avoid the leafy greens.

THE RECALL

In one of the most famous examples of a food recall, Westland/Hallmark forfeited 143 million pounds of beef in 2008 after the USDA learned that the company had been slaughtering cows that were too weak or ill to stand, and thus the meat was unfit for human consumption. It ended up being the largest food recall in U.S. history, and the cost of the process—plus the ensuing litigation—bankrupted the company.

According to a 2011 Grocery Manufacturers Association survey [PDF] of 36 food companies including big names like General Mills, The Coca-Cola Company, and Kellogg Company, a single food recall can generally cost a company up to $30 million (sometimes even more).

Meat and some egg products are handled by a governmental agency called the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which is a branch of the Department of Agriculture. The FSIS handles about 20 percent of all food recalls, and the processes for sampling, detection, and recall are similar to the FDA’s.

While the stories we hear on the news are often extreme examples, food recalls typically aren’t public health nightmares. Most are initiated because of undeclared allergens (like the recent recall of 145,000 cartons of almond milk that might have contained cow's milk) or out of an abundance of caution.

PULLING PRODUCTS

Once a product is recalled, stores are required to remove it from their shelves. Companies whose products have been recalled must reach out to their distributors and make them aware of the recall, and both the FSIS and FDA check that recalled products have been pulled from store shelves.

Sometimes, retailers don't get the memo or don't act accordingly. Nearly a month after the FDA announced a recall of Honey Smacks cereal, the agency learned in mid-July that the product was still being offered for sale. "Retailers cannot legally offer the cereal for sale and consumers should not purchase Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal," the agency wrote in an online warning. "The FDA will continue to monitor this situation closely and follow up with retailers as we become aware of recalled products being offered for sale."

The latest recalls are always posted on the websites of the FDA and FSIS, and it’s up to those agencies to decide when a recall should be closed and when a food is safe to eat again.

At the end of the day, it’s all about doing what’s necessary to protect the consumer. “We want to make sure that these products are removed from the market as quickly as possible,” Cassell says. Indeed, these agencies play a crucial role in what we eat and when we eat it. So go ahead and order that Caesar salad—romaine lettuce is safe to eat and back on the menu again.

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

stockfour/iStock via Getty Images
stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

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A Website Wants to Pay You $500 to Eat Pumpkin Pie

Element5 Digital, Unsplash
Element5 Digital, Unsplash

Pumpkin pie season doesn't have to end on Thanksgiving. One website is looking for a pumpkin pie taster to sample the treat long past November, and they're ready to pay whoever does it, Thrillist reports.

The online gambling site BonusFinder.com wants to give you everything you need to become a professional dessert connoisseur. If you're lucky enough to land the gig, BonusFinder will cover food and travel expenses so you can try the best pumpkin pie available. The pie taster will be paid an additional $500 for their trouble.

BonusFinder is looking for someone to judge the dish on six criteria: pie appearance, flavor, pastry texture, filling texture, spice complexity, and value. The pie taster's findings will be written up in a blog post on BonusFinder's website.

You don't necessarily need to have the best palate to qualify for this opportunity. Just fill out the application form on BonusFinder.com with a few words about why you're right for the job and wait for the winner to be selected at random. Candidates have until December 5 to sign up, and the pie taster will be contacted on December 7. To sate your appetite in the meantime, read more about pumpkin pie's connection to Thanksgiving here.

[h/t Thrillist]