What You (Probably) Did Not Know About Food Recalls

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

UConn Extension Educator/Food Safety


dole spinach
Photo: FDA

Food recalls have become so commonplace that most consumers no longer pay attention. In the month of July alone, there were 46 recalls by food processors who are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Food recalls are conducted when there is a concern that a food may cause injury or illness to consumers. The suspect products are removed from food distribution channels—from distributors, restaurants, grocery stores and household kitchens. Reasons for a recall can include:

  • As a result of routine testing, a pathogen (or microbe that makes people sick) is found in the food
  • An outbreak occurs, it is traced back to a specific product, so the product is recalled
  • Discovery of a potential allergen, chemical (such as a recent turmeric recall due to lead) or physical contaminant (such as metal bits or plastic)
  • Mislabeling or misbranding of food. For example, a food may contain an allergen, such as nuts or eggs, but those ingredients do not appear on the label.

The policies regarding recalls have changed over the years. But as regulatory agencies, consumers and industry are looking for quicker responses to foodborne illnesses and food adulteration, the USDA, FDA and even voluntary third party inspection programs are demanding more attention to food industry recall procedures. It is usually in the company’s best interest to conduct a recall quickly and efficiently—ultimately reducing the risk for a contaminated product injuring a consumer or causing a foodborne disease outbreak.


The USDA FSIS is the agency that is responsible for ensuring our meat, poultry and processed eggs products are safe. At this point in time, the USDA does not have a mandatory recall authority. They can request that a company conduct a recall, but this is a request and technically the recall is voluntary. However, the agency does have other recourse. They can withhold the grant of inspection, meaning the plant must cease operations; they can detain or seize product; and they can issue public health alerts. As a result, companies generally comply with the request to recall.

The USDA/FSIS then assists the operation with identifying how much product to recall, ensuring that subsequent customers—further processors or retailers, for example, are informed of the recall. Finally, the agency conducts recall efficiency checks to make sure that all product is out of commerce in a timely fashion.

Other foods

The FDA is responsible for regulating approximately 80% of the food industry. Any non-meat product including fish, fruits and vegetables, whole eggs, and baked goods would all be included. Like USDA, FDA can request that a company conducts a recall, but if the company refuses, there are legal actions that can be taken to address public health risk. The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 gave FDA the authority to mandate a recall if an operation has produced a product that risks the public health.

What the food companies are doing

In recent years, the development of recall plans and traceback systems have become standard for many in the food industry. For the most part, these are voluntary; though new USDA/FSIS rules do and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) will, as it is implemented, require all plants to have a recall plan in place.

A recall plan is developed before the occurrence of a recall, so that in event of the need for one, the company can refer to a plan that is in place, rather than scrambling to figure out what to do. A recall plan generally includes:

  • A description of the roles and responsibilities of the operators
  • Contact lists—for regulators, lawyer, insurance company, customers, media
  • Lot identification/batch identification, traceback information
  • Procedures for disposition of recalled product
  • Record keeping procedures/forms

Regulators and industry have pretty much got this recall thing figured out, though there are still concerns regarding the speed of the process. There is concern that between the time that an outbreak occurs or pathogens are found in a food and the time the recall becomes public, the product could be purchased and consumed and consumers sickened. Timing is important in an outbreak. Rapid responses are particularly important for higher risk recalls.

While recalls are incredibly common, not all recalls have equal urgency and impact on the public health. A Class I recall is the most serious. This involves a food product that has a reasonable probability of causing serious injury, illness or death. These recalls are likely when a food is found to be contaminated with a pathogen such as E. Coli O157:H7 or Listeria monocytogenes during routine testing or if the food has already been implicated in an outbreak.

A Class II recall may cause temporary illness that typically result in full recovery—death and serious consequences are not likely. An example of a Class II recall would be the presence of small amounts of allergen, or small, non-sharp foreign object. Finally, Class III recalls are not likely to cause illness, but are still in violation of the law, such as undeclared ingredients.

As a consumer, how can you possibly know about all these recalls? First, take comfort in knowing that of the 46 recalls announced in July, “only” six were associated with foodborne illness outbreaks—and most of these outbreaks are fairly localized. About 25% were due to undeclared allergens. So, obviously, if you have a food allergy it might make sense for you to know pay closer attention.

If you have a grocery store customer card, you may like to know that when a recall or outbreak occurs, stores often use this as a tool to find you and notify you of the recall—generally if an illness is associated with the recall. You see, they know exactly what you are buying. Some might find this to be comforting, others might not!

News outlets will often inform watchers, listeners or readers of recalls impacting those in Connecticut. But then, you need to be watching or listening to a broadcast or reading a local newspaper.

Or, you can catch up online. Because there are two food regulation agencies, it makes sense to go to one of two places where a compilation of recent recalls, from both FDA regulated and USDA/FSIS regulated foods. The UConn Extension food safety website has a “widget” on the main page that lists recent recalls. Find this at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu. In addition, you may find this list at www.foodsafety.gov as well.

For more information on food recalls, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.