The Anatomy of a Food Recall
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.