A Rise in Food Recalls: More Contaminants or a Better Detection Process?

A Rise in Food Recalls

The last few years have seen many notable food recalls including ice cream, ground beef and cereal. Possibly the most notorious case was the two-time nationwide recall in 2018 of romaine lettuce for suspected E. coli. The rate of recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks increased by 10 percent from 2013 to 2017, which may be due to an enhanced ability to detect the problem and a more complex food supply chain, rather than a rise in contaminants.

Who recalls food, and why?
Several organizations oversee and issue food recalls and remove products from the market. The Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry and some egg products, which accounts for roughly 20 percent of the nation’s food supply. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for the safety of the remaining food supply, including domestic and imported foods and pet foods. When a foodborne illness occurs, state departments contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which then contacts the FDA or FSIS. Additionally, manufacturers play a significant role in overseeing and issuing recalls for their own products.

The cause of a food recall typically fits into one of three categories: pathogen contamination, physical contamination or misbranding. Pathogen contamination happens when a disease-causing microorganism such as E. Coli or Salmonella infiltrates a food item. Physical contaminants are foreign objects such as plastic, glass or metal. Misbranding can refer to undeclared allergens such as nuts or milk, undeclared substances, such as food additives or colorings, or putting the wrong label on a product. Undeclared allergens and foodborne illness were the top reasons for food recalls in 2017.

Manufacturers discover food safety threats through in-house inspections and safety checks. Additionally, customers may alert companies of a food safety issue. Aside from manufacturer inspections, the FDA and FSIS perform their own safety checks by inspecting manufacturing facilities and food samples. High-risk facilities are inspected once every three years. When foodborne illness occurs, state health departments and the CDC inform the FDA or FSIS, which then contact the manufacturer.

Most recalls are done voluntarily by the manufacturer. If a company needs to issue a recall, it is required to inform the FDA or FSIS immediately with a plan of action that includes how the company intends to handle the recall, a press release and who is affected. It is the responsibility of the manufacturer to remove the product from market as soon as the problem has been found, even while the FDA or FSIS is reviewing the submitted plan. It is rare for the FDA or FSIS to issue a recall instead of the manufacturer, but this can occur when the source of the contaminant has yet to be determined.

How food gets contaminated
As access to food becomes more convenient, the food supply becomes more convoluted. Food travels longer distances, goes through more processing and is touched by more hands — all of which can contribute to contamination. Fruits and vegetables can be contaminated by birds or other animals. Fields can flood with contaminated water that is then used to feed plants. Produce can become contaminated by manure or farm workers who may not practice proper hand-washing.

While some foods once had seasons of availability, most now are accessible year-round, meaning the food can travel thousands of miles before reaching a supermarket. This can increase opportunity for contamination from handling and temperature changes. Additionally, convenience foods such as pre-chopped and washed salads are handled by more people and machines. The same can be true for packaged foods.

Healthy animals used for food often contain foodborne microbes, and contamination can occur during slaughter if small amounts of intestinal contents are exposed to meat. Grinding meat exposes the processing equipment to contaminants that were present in the intestines, exposing the ground meat to contaminants.

Raw milk and fruit juices are pasteurized to kill pathogens, but there have been recalls on these items due to human error where the liquid was either not pasteurized or not pasteurized to the proper temperature. A common concern with eggs is Salmonella, which can get on the outer shell from exposure to manure or can be found inside the egg if it’s transferred from the hen’s ovaries.

Why we’re seeing more recalls
Approximately one in six Americans gets sick each year from foodborne illness. According to the reputation management company Stericycle, recalls for all products (including nonfood) increased 33 percent from 2012 to 2017. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund found food recalls increased 10 percent between 2013 and 2017. However, yearly data from the FDA shows recalls declined significantly from 2017 (3,609 cases) to 2018 (1,935 cases), which is promising for the future.

The FDA could be discovering problems that may have previously gone undetected. The Food Safety Modernization Act, enacted in 2011, gave the FDA more power in preventing food safety problems. Among the law’s many results, all food facilities are required to have a preventive controls plan; produce safety rules are enhanced; FDA facility inspections are more frequent and mandated; the FDA has access to food safety records of all companies and greater authority over imported foods; and the FDA has the power to issue a mandatory recall and discontinue registration of any company it deems unsafe.

Recall Classifications

Class I:
Could cause serious harm or death

Undeclared allergens or food with botulinum toxin

Class II:
Could cause a temporary health hazard


Class III
Unlikely to cause a health problem but violates regulations

A food package missing weight specifications


Number of Recalls

2014 2,545 94
2015 3,265 150
2016 2,567 122
2017 3,609 131
2018 1,935 125

*Food and cosmetic recalls

The FDA, USDA and CDC now use a technology called whole genome sequencing, which enables them to discover the source of foodborne illness faster and more efficiently. This method works by using a database of samples collected from food, production facilities and people who become ill.

When a person contracts a foodborne illness, scientists can compare a sample of the pathogen with those in the database to find its exact or closest genetic match and determine which food or facility caused the illness. The ability to compare pathogens at the genetic level significantly increases the accuracy and speed at which a food can be recalled.

Product labeling also may be responsible for the rise in recalls. For instance, a lack of place-of-origin labeling on produce makes it more difficult to track the source of an outbreak and could increase the amount of product recalled, as seen in the December 2018 romaine lettuce recall. In the wake of the romaine recall, all lettuce will display place of origin and harvest date, and the FDA is advocating for place-of-origin labeling on all produce packaging. This could make recall responses more effective and allow consumers to be more informed.

Foodborne illness recalls also can easily be caused by human error, which may explain food companies’ increased use of robotics. According to the Robotic Industry Association, orders for robots among the food and beverage industry increased 32 percent in 2016. Although better technology can help decrease the amount of recalls, it also may be a contributing factor to the increase in recalls. For instance, automated packaging has led to an increase in product mislabeling and manufacturing equipment has led to an increase in foreign materials found in foods.

Easier access to information may contribute to a public perception that there are more recalls. Typically, the FDA and FSIS do not directly alert the media about a food recall. Social media may contribute to more awareness and the belief that recalls are increasing.

How RDNs can help
Registered dietitian nutritionists can play an important role in protecting clients from foodborne illness by providing education about proper food handling techniques. Cleanliness is imperative in safe food preparation, yet a recent USDA study found 97 percent of consumers fail to wash their hands properly.

In addition to personal hygiene, RDNs can educate patients and clients on cleanliness in the kitchen and food preparation areas. Consumers should understand the importance of avoiding crosscontamination, thawing food appropriately and cooking to proper temperatures.

RDNs can inform patients and clients of any pertinent recalls and make them aware of resources available. Many grocery stores have social media profiles that are updated with relevant recalls. Foodsafety.gov is regularly updated with recalls and has Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest profiles and an RSS feed that users can sign up to receive automatic alerts. FSIS also keeps a running record of recalls at fsis.usda.gov and allows users to sign up for automatic alerts.


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Esther Ellis
Esther Ellis, MS, RD, LDN, is an associate editor of Food & Nutrition Magazine.