Understanding food recalls: guardians of the gut

March 29, 2018 Providence Health Team


All food recalls are voluntary

Food is recalled for contamination or mislabeling

You eat commonly recalled foods every day

Is the food you’re eating safe? Thanks to food inspections and recalls, the answer is most likely yes. However, it’s important to understand when, why and how food is recalled so you can keep your family safe from foodborne illnesses like listeria, salmonella, botulism and the norovirus infection that broke out at the Winter Olympics in South Korea. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 48 million Americans are affected by foodborne diseases each year.

What is a food recall?

If there is reason to believe food products are contaminated, misbranded or of poor quality, manufacturers or their distributors will voluntarily issue a food recall. When this happens, the food products are removed from store shelves and made unavailable for public consumption. Food recalls help protect the public from products that may cause health problems, illness or possible death. Food recalls have three classifications:

  • Class I indicates there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death.
  • Class II indicates there is a remote probability of adverse health consequences from eating the food.
  • Class III indicates there are no adverse health consequences, but there is either a labeling or manufacturing law violation.

Obviously, Class I is the most serious, but any recalled food may call into question the manufacturer’s practices.

What triggers a food recall and what happens next?

Food recalls are generally the result of a defect in labeling or contamination. First, a manufacturer or distributor discovers an issue and contacts the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Second, the FDA inspects the facility in which the issue was discovered and determines whether to issue an official recall. Third, the FDA researches health reports, chiefly from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to determine if there have been reported health issues. If there are reports of health problems associated with the food or drink product in question, an emergency recall is issued to consumers through news reports, press announcements and safety alerts, and the FDA works with the producer to eliminate the cause of the problem.

Food recalls may have been back-of-mind for many people until Chipotle was linked to an E. coli outbreak in 2015. Since then, consumers have remained wary of food safety, particularly in the fast food industry. However, these ten foods that have the highest recall rates may surprise you:

  • Baked goods
    Most often recalled due to containing undeclared allergens such as eggs, nuts, soy, wheat or dairy.
  • Cantaloupe
    This fruit has a porous rind, making it easy for contaminants to get in. It’s also non-acidic, which can be a breeding ground for bacteria and germs once it’s cut open.
  • Pet food
    The food our furriest family members eat is regularly recalled for salmonella contamination.
  • Eggs
    Like dog food, eggs are commonly recalled due to salmonella contamination. Pro-tip: Always read egg carton labels, and never buy eggs past their sell-buy date.
  • Fresh produce
    Because fruits and vegetables pass through many hands before they land in your shopping cart, there is an increased risk of listeria contamination. Salmonella that feeds on juices from damaged leaves has been found to spread inside packaged greens like bagged lettuce.
  • Beef
    Beef, particularly ground beef, is susceptible to E. coli contamination.
  • Milk
    Consumers may report milk that spoils before the ‘best-before’ dates, causing a recall. Milk is also recalled for E. coli or other bacteria and cleaning products used during production or processing.
  • Peanuts
    Often recalled due to salmonella contamination.
  • Chicken and poultry
    Chicken is often recalled for salmonella contamination. Also, ensure raw chicken is kept refrigerated — and cook it thoroughly to 165 degrees Fahrenheit to stay safe from food borne illness like salmonella.
  • Seafood
    Seafood, particularly shellfish, is susceptible to mercury contamination. Seafood is also commonly recalled due to concerns over botulism and listeria contamination.

How can I be alerted or find out about food recalls?

Make sure your food and beverages are safe with these tools:

These tools will help you keep track of food recalls so you can avoid potentially dangerous contaminants. The next step in food safety is understanding expiration dates so you know what’s safe inside your fridge and pantry and for how long. How much do you know about food safety? Take our quiz to find out.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


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