Everything You Need to Know About Food Recalls

These days, it seems like there's a new food recall every week. Everything from spinach to ground beef to Ritz and Goldfish crackers have been pulled from shelves in recent years.

Foods like eggs are often recalled because of the risk of foodborne illnesses like salmonella. (Image: Iryna Imago/iStock/GettyImages)

But what exactly is a food recall? And what do you do when one's been issued?

If you're concerned (or confused!), don't worry: You're not alone. Here's everything you've been wanting to know about these sometimes-scary alerts — and how to protect your health when they happen.

What Are Food Recalls, Anyway?

While it may sound like some newfangled memory game, a food recall is issued when there's a potential risk that a certain food may present a health hazard. Food producers and manufacturers then take action and pull that item from the marketplace.

There are three classes of recalls: Class I recalls are the most serious, when the food can potentially cause serious illness, injury or death. (Think raw ground beef laced with E.coli.)

Class II recalls are less worrisome but still could lead to an illness or injury, whereas Class III recalls are not likely to cause significant consequences.

There are several federal government agencies that work together to keep an eye on the safety of food in the U.S. and ensure that products are properly labeled and packaged. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), an agency within the U.S. Department Agriculture, monitors meat, poultry and processed egg products, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the safety of all food not regulated by FSIS. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) keep track of the bigger picture, gathering data on and investigating foodborne illnesses.

Why Is Food Recalled?

Food can be recalled for a whole host of reasons.

First and most concerning, it may be contaminated by a pathogen or bacteria that can cause serious illness, injury or death (aka Class I recalls). Salmonella and E.coli are the most notorious culprits behind these food recalls. Listeria is another bacteria that can cause major health problems, especially for pregnant women, older adults and people with weaker immune systems, per the CDC. "Even if there are only a few cases of [listeriosis], the severity of the illness is so significant that action is generally taken very quickly," Shelley Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

"A lot of food recalls occur because the food might be misbranded or contain an undeclared allergen," says Leslie Thompson, PhD, professor of food science and safety at Texas Tech University. In the United States, food producers are required to declare on the label if the product contains any of the big eight allergens — peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk, wheat, fish, shellfish and soy — which account for approximately 90 percent of all food allergies. "Sometimes the allergen isn't labeled or it's left off the ingredient list," she says, which prompts a recall.

Another common reason? The presence of foreign object like a piece of plastic or metal that may have snuck in during the manufacturing or packaging process.

The majority of food recalls are voluntary. Typically, food manufacturers or distributors report a potentially unsafe product to FSIS or the FDA. Other times, FSIS, the FDA or local and state regulatory agencies may find unsafe food products during their routine inspection and testings.

With the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011, the FDA was granted the authority to mandate a recall. "If the FDA deems that there is a contaminant that will cause serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals, then they can mandate a recall and make that manufacturer take that product out of the stream of commerce," says Thompson. Since 2011, the FDA has only exercised this right one time. In April 2018, it mandated the recall of food products containing powdered kratom due the risk of salmonella.

Tell the Truth — Is the Number of Food Recalls Increasing?

According to a report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund, food recalls increased 10 percent between 2013 and 2018, with a peak of 905 recalls in 2016. During this same period, they found that Class I recalls — the ones with the greatest potential for health risks — increased 83 percent. Yikes!

But before you throw out all your food, know that the increasing number of recalls may not be a bad thing. "There's a perception that food is less safe, but really we're now able to find out more about specific pathogens, outbreaks and illnesses a lot sooner," says Feist. The combination of advanced technology and new regulations like the FSMA means that food producers and food safety regulators can detect harmful pathogens and take action faster. Plus, after reaching a peak in 2016, the total number of recalls has declined in both 2017 (817 total recalls) and 2018 (703 total recalls).

What to Do When There's a Food Recall

If a food is recalled, the first step is to determine if you have the recalled product in your home.

The recall notice will include the product name, brand and weight or size as well as product-specific information. For example, meat and poultry recalls will also include establishment number (which connects the product to the plant where it was produced), lot code and date code, while packaged produce will include the "best used by date" and canned products will include a UPC code.

For recalls of bulk produce that don't have a label, check with the store where you purchased the item. The same goes for deli or in-store prepared foods. If you buy meat, poultry or fish in bulk and repackage them into smaller portions, remember to keep the original packaging so you have the information on hand should there be a recall. If you're unsure, Feist recommends asking your food retailer. "They will be up-to-date on all food recalls," she says.

If the product details in the recall notice match the item you have in your home, don't eat it! Dispose of the product carefully and don't puncture or open canned products. And while this may seem obvious, don't feed the recalled product to your pets or donate it to a food bank, either. Wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap after handling the product.

But remember, just because one product is recalled doesn't mean that all forms or brands of that product are affected. For example, if there's a recall on fresh spinach, frozen and canned spinach are OK. Same goes with a recall on a specific brand of peanut butter. The recall often affects just one lot and doesn't mean all other brands should be avoided.

Stay Informed About Food Recalls

FoodSafety.gov provides all the information you need on the latest food recalls and alerts as well as foodborne illness outbreaks. The site gathers information from the main federal agencies responsible for food safety including FSIS, FDA, CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

You can also follow FoodSafety.gov on Twitter and sign up for email alerts directly from FSIS and the FDA.

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