How Food Recalls Work
On February 15, the organic food company Nature’s Path recalled three of its cereal products because they contained undeclared gluten. For people with a serious food allergy, recalls related to the mislabeling of products can be extremely as dangerous. Labels are often the first line of defense for people with allergies, and mislabeled items can have disastrous consequences if a product gets into the hands of a customer with an allergy to an unmarked ingredient. If someone in your family has a serious food allergy, finding out that a product you love has been mislabeled and recalled can leave you feeling vulnerable and uneasy.
- 34% of food recalls in the US take place because of an undeclared allergen in the product, making it the second most common cause of food recalls, according to Reportable Food Registry (RFR) data cited by Food Safety Magazine
- According to the website Statista, 28% of Americans with children are seriously concerned about food recalls
- Italy has the most food recalls per capita, according to the same data, accounting for 18% of them worldwide
What is a food recall?
A food recall is the process by which manufacturers or distributors take food off of the market and out of distribution if they feel that it may be dangerous to the health of consumers. Recalls can take place for a variety of reasons, but some of the most common include a biological contamination, labeling issues, or discovery of a potential allergen, according to FoodSafety.gov.
Food recalls are expensive. They cost companies an average of $10 million in direct sales alone, according to a survey in Food Safety Magazine. They also affect consumer trust, with 15% of consumers saying they’d never buy the product again.
Starting the Process
Almost always, a food recall begins when a manufacturer or distributor notices an issue with their product and contacts government regulators about it on their own. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating around 80% of the U.S. food supply, including foreign and domestic foods. The other 20% falls under the purview of a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) called the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
Sometimes, the FDA or FSIS will request the recall, and if the company doesn’t comply, the regulators will take legal action to initiate the process. As of January 2011, the FDA now has the power to shut down operations at food processing facilities if it deems them a public health risk, streamlining the process in extreme cases, according to an article by Food Safety News.
It is also possible for recalls to be prompted by consumers. The FDA encourages consumers to submit complaints or product problems, which can sometimes lead to recalls. You can read more about submitting complaints and product problems here.
Once a company requests a recall, the FDA or FSIS takes over, evaluating the severity of the situation and classifying the recall based on the threat it poses to consumers. Regulators divide recalls into three classes based on severity: Class I, which indicates a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause a health problem; Class II, which is less severe and involves a remote probability it will cause a health problem; and Class III, in which regulators don’t believe eating the food will cause adverse health consequences.
Once the severity of the threat has been determined, regulators oversee the manufacturers’ efforts to get rid of the product, removing it from supermarket shelves, distribution warehouses, and consumers’ ketchens. The manufacturer then destroys the recalled product.
In extreme cases, regulators seek out media attention in order to ensure that the public is aware of the risks associated with a certain product. For larger-scale recalls, notices will show up on social media, on regulator and manufacturer websites, and in news outlets. Because a batch number and expiration date are listed on products, if a consumer hears about a recall, they can check the products in their own kitchen to see if they’re affected. According to howstuffworks.com, in most cases consumers can take the product back to the store they bought it from for a full refund or exchange.
After the Fact
Once the recalled product has been removed the FDA or USDA is responsible for inspecting the facilities and products and deciding when it’s time to let companies resume business as usual.
Keeping Your Family Safe
If you’re worried about a specific allergen, you can always check these resources:
They post allergy alerts for recalls related to unlabeled products
This is where the FDA also keeps a running list of recalls, market withdrawals, and safety alerts on their website. On this website you can filter by type (food, drugs, cosmetics, etc), and search by specific terms in that type (i.e. “gluten”, “peanuts”, etc).
This is the official FDA account that posts updates about ongoing recalls.
This account posts helpful resources and updates. They are specifically focused on educating consumers about the importance of safe food handling & how to reduce the risks associated with foodborne illness.
Think you have a recalled product and are not sure / want to know what to do?
Check out this FDA webpage about Identifying Recalled Products
Food recalls and labeling mishaps are not only dangerous for consumers, they’re costly for companies in many ways. In addition to a natural desire to keep customers safe, manufacturers also have a huge financial stake in preventing these kinds of mistakes from happening in the first place and putting a stop to them once they’re discovered. Companies tend to work closely with regulators to remove the threat as quickly as possible, so while it’s important to be vigilant about food recalls, remember that regulators and companies are working to prevent these unsafe products from falling into your family’s hands.
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