Ask the Expert: Product Recalls
By Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND
Vol. 25 No. 8 P. 8
Q: There have been several food recalls that clients have asked me about. Can you explain the process involved regarding food recalls and provide recommendations on how to counsel clients?
A: About one in six Americans gets sick from a foodborne illness every year.1 Although it appears there’s been an increase in food recalls, the numbers have decreased over the past few years.2 To counsel clients, it’s important for dietetics professionals to understand the process of a food recall. Below, you’ll learn what happens when there’s a food recall and how to provide clients with information and resources if they’ve been affected.
Why Are Foods Recalled?
Food products can be recalled for a variety of reasons. They may contain a pathogenic or physical contaminant or be misbranded. Pathogenic contamination occurs when a harmful pathogenic microorganism, such as Salmonella or E. coli, is transferred to the food. Physical contamination occurs when a foreign object, such as metal or plastic, is found in the food. Misbranding is the most common reason for recalls and often occurs when an undeclared allergen, like soy or nuts, or an undeclared substance, like food coloring, is in the product or if an incorrect label is placed on the product. According to a 2022 analysis of FDA data by the Sedgwick organization, undeclared allergens accounted for 43.5% of food recalls.3
Foodservice operators usually test food through inspections and safety checks. The FDA and USDA Food Service and Inspection Service conduct their own safety checks; however, consumers also may alert companies if they become aware of a food safety issue.
The FDA can issue mandatory food and supplement recalls if it believes a food or supplement has been adulterated, misbranded, or can cause serious adverse health effects; however, infant formula falls under its own set of regulations and procedures. The agency regulates commercial infant formulas to ensure they meet minimum nutrition and safety requirements. If the formula’s nutritional value or safety recommendations don’t meet standards, including the minimum 30 nutrients required, federal law allows the FDA to issue a mandatory recall.4
Food companies usually authorize a recall voluntarily if they find a product to be potentially harmful to consumers if used or consumed. Typically, a company will work with the FDA to alert the public, publicize the recall, and outline steps for consumers to take to minimize harm and illness if they purchased the affected product.
Ensuring Food Supply Safety
While it may seem as though recalls often occur, RDs can make consumers aware that the US food supply ranks high for safety. According to The Economist’s Global Food Security Index,5 which measures foods’ affordability, availability, quality, safety, sustainability, and adaptation (the quantifiable risks that may occur from changes in available natural resources)—the United States ranks 13 out of 131 countries. And since 2012, the United States has moved up 25 positions for food safety indicators.
Since the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, there’s been a drastic improvement in food supply regulation.6 Several guidelines in the law are responsible for this improvement. Currently, all facilities are required to have a preventative control plan, enhanced produce safety rules, and more frequent FDA facility inspections. Facilities must give the FDA access to food safety records, greater authority over imported food, and comply with the agency to issue mandatory recalls.
In addition, advanced technology has been developed to help reduce cases of foodborne illness, including the FDA’s GenomeTrakr Network.7 This technology helps the agency quickly respond to outbreaks and also allows for surveillance of foodborne pathogens. Since adopting whole genome sequencing for Listeria outbreaks, the average number of Listeria illnesses per outbreak has dropped by 50%.8
Recommendations for RDs
When clients have questions about food and supplement recalls, dietetics professionals should ask whether they’ve used or consumed the food or supplement in question. If clients believe they have a recalled product they haven’t used or consumed, they can access a full list of product recalls, including lot numbers, the store(s) that sold it, and specific package sizes on the US Department of Health and Human Services website (foodsafety.gov).9 The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service also posts recalls on its website at www.fsis.usda.gov/recalls.10
RDs can instruct clients to not open, consume, or donate a product that matches the description on the recall notice. Instead, clients should return the product to the store for a refund or dispose of it in accordance with the instructions provided in the recall notice.
If clients believe they’ve eaten a recalled food or are exhibiting any symptoms, RDs should refer them to their physician for further evaluation.
— Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND, is founder of Toby Amidor Nutrition (tobyamidornutrition.com) and a Wall Street Journal bestselling author. She’s written 10 cookbooks, including the upcoming Up Your Veggies: Flexitarian Recipes for the Entire Family (October 2023) and Diabetes Create Your Plate Meal Prep Cookbook: 100 Delicious Plate Method Recipes. She’s also a nutrition expert for FoodNetwork.com and a contributor to U.S. News and other national outlets.
Send your questions to Ask the Expert at TDeditor@gvpub.com or send a tweet to @tobyamidor.
1. What you need to know about foodborne illnesses. U.S. Food and Drug Administration website. https://www.fda.gov/food/consumers/what-you-need-know-about-foodborne-illnesses#:~:text=While%20the%20American%20food%20supply,in%206%20Americans%20each%20year. Updated February 17, 2022. Accessed July 24, 2023.
2. Summary of recall and PHA cases in calendar year 2022. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Services website. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/recalls-public-health-alerts/annual-recall-summaries/summary-recall-and-pha-cases. Updated March 22, 2023. Accessed July 24, 2023.
3. Beach C. Report finds an enormous increase in the number of food items recalled in 2022. Food Safety News website. https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2023/03/report-finds-enormous-increase-in-number-of-food-items-recalled-in-2022/#:~:text=Undeclared%20allergens%20have%20been%20the,years%2C%20according%20to%20the%20agency. Published March 15, 2023. Accessed July 24, 2023.
4. Infant formula. U.S. Food and Drug Administration website. https://www.fda.gov/food/resources-you-food/infant-formula#:~:text=Federal%20law%20permits%20the%20FDA,be%20included%20in%20infant%20formulas. Updated May 19, 2023.
5. The Global Food Security Index 2022. Economist Impact website. https://impact.economist.com/sustainability/project/food-security-index/. Accessed July 24, 2023.
6. Food Safety Modernization Act. U.S. Food and Drug Administration website. https://www.fda.gov/food/guidance-regulation-food-and-dietary-supplements/food-safety-modernization-act-fsma. Updated June 9, 2022. Accessed July 24, 2023.
7. Whole genome sequencing (WGS) program. U.S. Food and Drug Administration website. https://www.fda.gov/food/science-research-food/whole-genome-sequencing-wgs-program. Updated April 27, 2022.
8. Winnable battles final report. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/43072. Published November 2016. Accessed August 1, 2023.
9. Recalls and outbreaks. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website. https://www.foodsafety.gov/recalls-and-outbreaks. Updated July 29, 2022. Accessed July 24, 2023.
10. Recalls and public health alerts. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Services website. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/recalls. Accessed July 24, 2023.