In the year between July 2012 and July 2013, there were 610 food recalls in the US and Canada. That’s more food recalls than there are days in a year. But even though recalls are so frequent, many don’t understand how they work or even what they really are. Jessica White-Cason breaks down the process in the article, “Understanding Food Recalls: The Recall Process Explained,” which first appeared on Food Sentry and later appeared on Food Safety News. The article discusses the recall process in a fair amount of detail, but here are the basics.
Food recalls can begin in a few different ways. The most common way occurs when a food company finds a safety problem with its food supply and reports it to one of the agencies that oversees food recall—either the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Other times, recalls start when the FDA or FSIS discovers unsafe food during one of their inspections or sampling programs. The last—and probably the worst—way a recall can start is if foodborne illness breaks out due to a specific food product and a health department reports it to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The FDA and FSIS have three classification levels for food recalls. Class I recalls are for the most dangerous food safety problems, the ones with a good chance of hurting people. These recalls are often heavily publicized because the FDA and FSIS want to spread the word in order to prevent anyone from buying or eating the dangerous food. Class II recalls occurr when a food product has a small chance of damaging someone’s health. Class III recalls are essentially the “better safe than sorry” recalls. These happen when there is almost no chance of a food product endangering anyone, but a problem has still been discovered. Although class II and III recalls don’t get much media attention, you can find out which recalls are in progress by visiting the FDA and FSIS websites.
So why does food get recalled? To put it simply, the food either contains something that it isn’t supposed to or it has been labeled incorrectly or incompletely, usually called “misbranding.” For example, food may be recalled because it contains pieces of plastic or traces of a toxic pesticide, or because dangerous bacteria like salmonella or Listeria monocytogenes may have contaminated it. A common example of misbranding happens when a food product contains a common allergenic ingredient like eggs or peanuts, but the label doesn’t say so. Unlabeled allergens, salmonella contamination, and listeria contamination cause the most recalls in the US; last year, salmonella contamination was behind more than one-third of the 610 food recalls.
Once need for a recall has been found, the recalling company works with the FDA or FSIS to make the recall as speedy and effective as possible. In almost all cases, companies with a compromised food supply are eager to make things right; if they don’t, their reputations and business suffer, and they can be shut down by the FDA. In the end, it is the company’s duty to make sure unsafe food is retrieved from the market, and a recall remains in progress until the FDA or FSIS agrees that the safety issue has been resolved.