What You May Have Missed: Food Recalls

Recently, we’ve seen a number of stories about food recalls, from potential Salmonella in potato chips to golf ball pieces in hash browns.  Whether you hear about them from your favorite news channel or see them as the latest trending topic on Twitter, food recalls are a frequent issue that affects us all. But what are recalls, how do they work, and who oversees them?

Food Recalls: Taking the Guesswork Out of Food Safety

A food recall is a voluntary removal of a product from the market to protect consumers from harm. Recalls occur when food manufacturers, distributors, or government agencies believe a food could cause consumers to become ill due to mislabeling of a food, presence of a potential food allergen(s), or contamination with organisms that cause foodborne illnesses.  Recalls are usually initiated by the distributor or the manufacturer, but specific government agencies also have the authority to remove these products from the food supply as well.

Putting Your Tax Dollars to Work: Who Does What

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) take the lead with food safety and recalls. The USDA is responsible for recalls involving meat, poultry, and eggs, while the FDA oversees recalls for all other food products.

Discovering Unsafe Food – How Does It Happen?

There are a couple of ways recalls begin:

1) Manufacturers, distributors or local health departments become aware of a possible food issue and contact the USDA or the FDA of the potential hazard.
2) The USDA/FDA test food samples to identify possible sources.
3) The USDA/FDA inspect a manufacturing facility and determine the potential for a recall.
4) The USDA/FDA receives reports of health problems through report systems.

How Are Recalls Classified?

Recalls are categorized into three classes: Class I, II, and III:

Who Is Most at Risk?

All consumers are at varying levels of risk during a food recall.  However, certain population groups are at a greater risk for health problems than others, including newborns, older adults, pregnant women, and others with a weakened immune system.

Is Our Food System Really Safe?

Yes! The U.S. has one of the safest food supply chains in the world.  More than 3,000 state, local, and tribal agencies are responsible for the inspection, oversight, and regulation of retail food and food service industries in the U.S.  This includes grocery stores, restaurants, vending machines, cafeterias, schools, correctional facilities, and healthcare facilities. The FDA also provides a model Food Code for these agencies and food industries to follow, which provides guidance, training, program evaluation, and technical assistance for food safety principles. Additionally, Good Manufacturing Practices are enforced by the FDA to ensure that products are safe for human consumption.

What Can I Do to Protect Myself?

It’s important to be aware when a food recall is happening. But it’s equally important to know what to do during a food recall.  Here are a few helpful tips to keep you and your family safe during a food recall:

  • Don’t panic.  Not all food recalls are a major threat to your health and safety.  It’s important to check https://www.foodsafety.gov/ for the latest information about food recalls or use the USDA FoodKeeper App to stay up-to-date.
  • Don’t eat the recalled food.  And please don’t donate it, give it to someone else, or feed it to a pet.
  • Don’t open the recalled food, even if it’s just to take a photo to share on Facebook or Twitter.  If you do open it, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water.
  • Check the recall notice to find out what to do with the food.  You might be best advised to return the product or dispose of it properly.
  •  If you still have questions or concerns, use the Ask Karen USDA website for frequently asked questions about food safety.

Above all, enjoy your food and rest assured that you can be confident in the safety of our food system, but stay up-to-date on the latest food recalls to ensure you and your family remain safe.

Kathleen Walters, Virginia Tech dietetic intern, contributed this post.