What Exactly Happens During a Food Recall?

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Food recalls are common, and there have been more than 600 recalls in the past year in the U.S. and Canada, according to Food Safety News. More than a third of these recalls were due to Salmonella contamination, which is unusually high because of a massive peanut butter recall from Sunland, the nation's largest organic peanut processor.

What is a food recall?

A food recall is initiated when agencies become aware of a problem in the food supply that may cause illness to consumers. Food companies and government regulatory agencies work together to remove the product from warehouses, retail stores and consumers' homes.

Who is involved?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates about 80 percent of the food supply in the U.S. and oversees pet food safety, while a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) called Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) regulates meat, poultry and some egg products.

Usually the food manufacturer or distributor voluntarily requests a recall to take product off the market. Sometimes, government agencies discover the problem and request the product be removed. The manufacturing company is responsible for conducting the recall, and a government regulatory agency determines how serious the problem is, whether reasonable actions were taken to address it and when to end a recall.

How does the recall process work?

Companies form and quickly implement a recall strategy that is reviewed by the government regulator. This strategy may include details about the type of press release to be issued, who to direct recall efforts toward and proposed checks to determine the recall's effectiveness.

If the problem is severe and requires widespread public awareness, regulatory agencies will alert the media. Recalls are also posted online.

New food safety laws passed in January 2011 emphasize food-borne illness prevention and grant the FDA the authority to mandate food recalls and shut down food facility operations if it deems there is a significant health threat.

Why is food recalled?

Food can be recalled due to:

  • pathogen contamination (such as Salmonella, E. coli, or Listeria monocytogenes)
  • undeclared potential allergen (like peanut, milk or shellfish)
  • foreign object contamination (plastic, glass or metal fragments)

Image Credit: Ted Morrison

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