Understanding food recalls

Understand food recalls to know how to identify a potentially contaminated food.

A person shopping with a grocery basket full of produce.
Photo: Tara Clark/Pexels.

Raising awareness of food recalls can help prevent foodborne illness outbreaks. Recalls occur when a food has been identified to be contaminated, whether it is from a pathogen, an allergen or has been mislabeled. Contaminated food can make people ill or have an allergic reaction. Symptoms of a foodborne illness can range from mild gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, to more severe outcomes, including death.

The process of recalling food is mandated by government agencies, including the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); recalls can be identified as the result of a consumer reported incident(s), or by inspections. These agencies have policies and systems in place that focus on preventing foodborne illness, such as making sure manufacturers are following safe food handling practices like keeping food at the proper temperature to reduce the growth of bacteria. The United States imports about 15% of our food from many different countries and has a hand in overseeing that the food is safe via direct inspections and partnering with foreign regulatory agencies. However, that is not a guarantee, so when an outbreak does occur, the FDA also has reporting procedures in place to inform the public and regulate the sale, distribution and recall efforts. 

According to the CDC, food can become contaminated as a result of the following practices:

Steps

Definition

Example of Contamination

Production

Growing the plants we harvest or raising the animals we use for food.

If fields are sprayed with contaminated water, fruits and vegetables can be contaminated before harvest.

Processing

Changing plants or animals into what we recognize and buy as food. 

If contaminated water or ice is used to wash, pack or chill fruits or vegetables, the contamination can spread to those items.  

Distribution

Moving food from the farm or production plant to the consumer or a kitchen.

If refrigerated food is left on a loading dock for too long in warm weather, it could reach temperatures that allow bacteria to grow.

Preparation

Getting the food ready to eat. This may occur in the kitchen of a restaurant, home or institution.

If a cook uses a knife to cut raw chicken and then uses the same knife without washing it to slice tomatoes, the tomatoes can be contaminated by pathogens from the chicken.

To stay abreast of the latest recalls, Michigan State University Extension recommends investigating your food when a recall is issued. One way to stay informed is by signing up for automatic alerts or bookmarking these sites such as the FDA or FoodSafety.gov. Recall information is also posted to MSU Extension’s Think Food Safety Facebook page. In addition, please reach out to your local and state health departments with more questions and to report an illness.

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