Legal & Criminal Justice

Legal & Criminal Justice
Food Recalls

Food Recalls Keep Consumers Safe from Illness

Article Highlights

  • An average of one in six products from most manufacturers tend to be recalled, source says.
  • Three reasons for food recalls include contamination with hazardous bacteria, presence of unintended and potentially dangerous items, and incorrect labeling.

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Food contamination can cause sickness and even death to those who consume the tainted products, which is why the government requires food recalls when companies realize a mistake has been made in their quality assurance process.

Susan Reef, founder of US Food Safety, says an average of two to three food recalls occur each day.

“They’re very common,” Reef says. “The reason why they’re so common, is because there’s so many reasons food products can be recalled. Something very minute can go into the entire food supply chain. They can be anything from allergens to something like with the cantaloupes (which caused a deadly listeria outbreak in 2011), that was huge.”

Reef says an average of one in six products from most manufacturers tend to be recalled.

“You never know what’s going to come down the pipe,” she says.

Reef says a recent trend has shown there tends to be more food contamination in ground beef during the summer months, than throughout the rest of the year. She says other commonly recalled items include produce and sprouts.

Karen Willing, a Legal instructor for South University, Online Programs says the three main reasons for food recalls include contamination with hazardous bacteria, presence of unintended and potentially dangerous items, and incorrect labeling.

“An example of this is a product that contains nuts,” Willing says. “If improperly labeled, a person with this allergy may eat this product, since it’s not properly labeled.”

Issuing Food Recalls

Mary Rothschild, managing editor at Food Safety News, says the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) share primary responsibility for overseeing the safety of the food supply, but the two organizations operate separately.

“The USDA, through its Food Safety and Inspection Service, has primary responsibility for meat, poultry, and some egg products, and some of the laws giving it regulatory authority come from the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, and the Egg Products Inspection Act,” Rothschild says.

“The FDA regulates foods other than meat and poultry, and its regulatory authority comes from the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which was amended in 2011 with the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act,” Rothschild says.

Be a wise consumer. If you’re worried about something, don’t buy it or ask.

Rothschild says the USDA and the FDA each handle food recalls a little differently.

The USDA requires companies to promptly notify them if any unsafe, unwholesome, or misbranded meat or poultry product is on the market, Rothschild says, but she doesn’t believe there is a specific timeframe attached to this requisite.

“The FDA, however, requires electronic reports to be filed within 24 hours if a company realizes it has shipped potentially harmful food,” Rothschild says. “After that notification, (the) FDA works with the company and state and local health and agriculture departments to get the food off grocery shelves, out of restaurants and otherwise out of the marketplace,” Rothschild says.

Willing says the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law on January 4, 2011, gives the FDA the ability to issue recalls.

“Prior to that time, recalls were done voluntarily only, and only by manufacturers and distributors,” Willing says. “Of course, if a manufacturer or distributor recalls a product, a restaurant that’s using it would have to comply, as would a grocery store with the product on its shelves.”

The Many Costs of Food Contamination

Willing says that while food contamination and subsequent recalls do cause a significant financial strain on businesses, it is not nearly as much as the lawsuits and bad press which occur if a product harms or kills someone and no action was taken.

“With the internet and the public’s ability to get all kinds of information, the public will know what tests were being done and if any recalls should have occurred,” Willing says.

Food Recalls

Rothschild says she’s seen estimates that on average, a food recall will cost a company a full quarter of its profits.

“In 2008 and 2009, there was a massive outbreak of Salmonella infection traced to a peanut paste made by Peanut Corporation of America,” Rothschild says. “That paste was used in 3,918 products, by 70 different companies, and all those products had to be recalled. The costs of that recall and outbreak have been estimated at $1 billion, and that includes the human costs as well as the business costs.”

Rothschild says the tainted peanut paste spanned 46 states, causing food-borne illness to a total of 714 people, 166 of which were hospitalized, and ultimately killing nine of the victims.   

“The company filed for bankruptcy,” Rothschild says. “Although it has been alleged that Peanut Corporation of America knew its product was contaminated with Salmonella, and shipped it anyway, there have been no criminal actions taken against those in the company responsible.”

Rothschild says Congress mandated the Reportable Food Registry after the peanut paste outbreak, which is the FDA mandatory online notification.

In 2010, shortly after the registry was launched, Rothschild says there was a huge recall of Salmonella contained hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), which is a flavoring ingredient sold by a Nevada processor. She says the HVP had been used in more than 177 separate products, all of which had to be recalled.

Rothschild says there were no reported cases of food-borne illness as a result of the HVP recall, which some believed served as evidence that the FDA’s mandatory 24-hour notice can help get the word out about contaminated products before they make people sick.

Avoiding Food-borne Illness

Regardless of the level of risk presented by a food recall, Willing says the distributor and manufacturer must notify its users, who are required to take immediate action.

“In many cases the salesperson goes to the establishment and, with notice to management, removes the products from shelves and any storage areas,” Willing says.

If a recalled item was properly removed from shelves and appropriate notices were given, yet the food is still consumed, Willing says the distributor and manufacturer may be off the hook.

“According to the Federal Drug Administration, many consumers ignore food recalls,” Willing says.

If the recall isn’t handled properly, or if the business doesn’t follow proper recall procedures, Willing says the establishment is liable for injuries caused, as well as a high likelihood for punitive damages.

Reef advises people to be cautious and ask where food they purchased came from.

“Be a wise consumer,” Reef says. “If you’re worried about something, don’t buy it or ask. You take it for granted that when you go in a store, the food you’re buying is not going to make you ill.”

As consumers, Reef says you want to believe that food is always safe, but unfortunately that isn’t necessarily the case.

“You hope that manufacturers will follow the letter of the law, but in this economy people tend to cut corners,” Reef says. “There are not enough federal and state food inspectors to go around.”

Author: Laura Jerpi

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