Understanding Recalls – Food, Cosmetics & Medication

We often hear news stories about manufacturers recalling products for various reasons. In this post, we explore the basics of recalls.

What is a recall?

When a product doesn't meet required quality or safety standards, a company will often voluntarily recall the item by ensuring retailers no longer sell the impacted goods and imploring consumers to discontinue using the recalled product. 

Why would a product need to be recalled?  

Manufacturers must meet quality and safety standards to ensure their products will not cause harm if used as intended.

Why would a product not meet safety or quality standards?

Many things can happen during the manufacturing and transportation processes that can impact quality and safety. This can include:

  • Contamination: We're familiar with ListeriaE. coli, and other bacterial contamination. But, any contaminant such as a foreign object or unintentional ingredient addition is considered contamination even if it's not harmful.  
  • Mislabeled product: Improperly labeled foods, cosmetics, and medicines can be recalled for incorrectly listing ingredients, having improper expiration dates, etc. 
  • Undeclared ingredient: For example, a product containing ingredients not present on the label, this can be especially impactful with potential allergens. 
  • Overall Safety: We'll see infant formula recalled for not maintaining the proper nutritional balance, dispensing medication properly, and many more potential safety issues. 

Which agencies oversee recalls?

In the United States, a few agencies oversee product recalls. 
Primarily, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) regulate food, cosmetic, and medicine product recalls (1). 
FDA Oversees: food recalls (non-meat products; fruits; vegetables; seafood; shelled eggs; infant formulas), medicines, medical devices, cosmetics, biologics, radiation-emitting products, veterinary drugs, and pet food recalls. 
US FSIS Oversees: meat, sausage, poultry, and processed egg product recalls.

Do the FDA and USDA FSIS recall items? 

Typically, a manufacturer recalls an item voluntarily with the support from federal agencies to get information to the public in the form of press releases and public notices. However, federal agencies have the power to warn the public and seize products if a manufacturer does not recall a potentially harmful item promptly. Additionally, the federal government can choose to take legal action if it's required (1,2,3).

How do recalls work?

All retailers dealing with food, cosmetics, medicines, and household products should be following the Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP) (1,2,3). The government outlines best practices to ensure the quality and safety of each product. Additionally, it outlines ways to ensure a product is recalled safely, such as implementing lot numbers to track specific batches of a product through the supply chain to the consumer. 

Why are some recalls more extensive than others?

There are products recalled every month. However, only a small number of recalled products make their way into the news headlines. Federal agencies will post notices informing consumers to discontinue using a specific product (1). 
To ensure impacted folks are aware and take action, the company will often issue a press release, sometimes with a federal agency. However, only a small portion of press releases will make splashy headlines. 
Reporters and federal agencies reserve the most extensive communication tactics for products with large distribution networks that will impact a significant population.
For example, if a small company distributing hand lotion issues a recall because of a mislabeled ingredient sold primarily in Michigan, it most likely won't make major headlines. If a large corporation distributing ice cream issues a recall because of a Listeria outbreak and they sell the impacted ice cream across the country, it will make headlines. 
Decisions on how to best promote a recall are made to ensure the most people impacted will be aware.

What do I do if a product I have is recalled?

Immediately stop using the product and throw it away if it can harm you.

If you're sick from a product or suspect an illness may be caused by consuming a recalled product (e.g., illness caused by a bacterial pathogen), reach out to your doctor for the next steps.

What do I do if a product I have is recalled?

There are two main websites to find out about most food, cosmetic, and medical-related recalls. 

For non-meat food, cosmetics, and medicine https://www.fsis.usda.gov/recalls.
For products containing meat https://www.fsis.usda.gov/recalls.

The good news.

We can protect ourselves and our families by paying attention to and acting on recall announcements. To view the recall status for more products such as cars and car seats, visit https://www.recalls.gov/.

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