Behind the Recall: The Steps that Ensure Food Safety

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Peanuts, cookie dough, and most recently, romaine lettuce. Food recalls are a frequent occurrence, but how exactly do they work?

The majority of food recalls come from the food companies themselves. Whether it’s the manufacturer, distributor, or the store, Sarah Brew, a Food Law expert, said that “almost all the recalls out there are voluntary recalls.” The FDA’s job in these cases is simply to oversee the recall. Brew says it is very rare for the FDA to have to force a company to issue a recall, emphasizing that most companies want to “do the right thing.”

If a company does not catch the contamination before an outbreak, the source must be determined through a “traceback” process. Once individuals start to get sick, the illness is reported to the CDC, and once that illness becomes widespread the agency begins to seek out what those people ate in common.

This process involves “working backwards through the supply chain to determine the root of the problem” which can be difficult. When a source is not determined, the public is most at risk.

In the early 2018 romaine lettuce scare (March-June), health officials traced the problem back to a contaminated water canal in Arizona, but could not determine the exact source. When this happens, the food in question cannot be recalled because there is no particular company to hold accountable, and the system does not allow for an entire industry to be incriminated. In this case the FDA did the next best thing and issued a public warning.

What causes a product to be recalled? A product is usually recalled for one of three reasons: “discovery of an organism in a product which may make consumers sick,” “discovery of a potential allergen in a product,” or “mislabeling or misbranding of food” (e.g. the product containing an allergen not listed on the label).  Food recalls are also assigned one of three class designations: Class I, meaning “there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death,” Class II, where there is only a remote probability, and Class III, where eating the food is unlikely to cause adverse health consequences.

The next step for companies when one of its products is recalled is to get rid of that product. In most cases, simply throwing the product out is not acceptable. The best step for the consumer is to return the recalled product to the store. This will result in a refund for the consumer and also ensure that the product is unable to be consumed by anyone else. Companies are also responsible for getting rid of the recalled food in a way that keeps it from being consumed, which means “they can’t just throw it away in a dumpster,” Brew said.

The FDA may require a receipt from a landfill, for the company to put bleach on the food, or for the product to be sent back to the manufacturer to ensure that it is all gone.

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