Food Engineering

Recalls are a fact of life

April 1, 2008


Every day, it seems there is another food product recall.  There are condiments recalled for potential contamination with botulism, meats that may contain Listeria monocytogenes, candies that have undeclared allergens and snacks with metal shavings. Do these recalls mean that our food supply is becoming more dangerous or that our regulators are doing their job and protecting the public health?  Or, does it mean something completely different?

The Centers for Disease Control’s estimates are as follows: 76 million cases of foodborne illness with 5,000 deaths each year.  If you examine actual figures gathered by CDC or USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the news is quite good. Even with greater awareness of foodborne illness in the medical community, the number of reported illnesses is dropping. USDA reports that since the agency implemented HACCP and other programs, reported illnesses and pathogen isolates have dropped.

To examine recalls individually, you can easily go to the websites of  USDA-FSIS, FDA or Canadian Food Inspection Agency at www.fsis.usda.gov, www.fda.gov or www.inspection.gc.ca

The predominant cause of recalls today is attributed to allergens. Products are recalled for undeclared dairy, nuts or soy. With meat products, pathogens such as Listeria are prominent. During the past year, there have been several recalls of commercially canned low-acid foods due to botulism. What has prompted several of these is last year’s Castleberry incident.  Products processed in the retort system involved in the incident are receiving greater scrutiny. However, what is very revealing in these incidents is that there have been no reported illnesses or health concerns. The recall is done because of a public health concern, not because of an illness complaint. If you have the opportunity to talk with companies or labs analyzing products involved in recalls, representatives will often say things such as, “We tested over 1,000 samples and were never able to find the alleged pathogen.”

Recalls are a fact of life. It is imperative that every food and ingredient processor, plus companies that produce packaging materials, develop and implement a recall program. Once the program is implemented, the company must maintain it. A recall program should consist of training of management and staff who might be involved in handling a recall, documenting procedures for what should be done during a recall and developing procedures for conducting mock recalls.

Do all companies have such programs? Unfortunately, they do not. Almost all companies have the capability to perform a mock recall, but often training of management and the recall action team is inadequate. Many people simply do not know their role if a recall occurs.

It is much more than simply tracking product. A recall entails finding the product, establishing programs to ensure it is recovered, implementing studies to determine what happened and why, addressing legal issues and dealing with the public and the media. A recall program is not a simple procedure and is much more than records from mock recalls that a third-party auditor will examine when he or she visits. The important thing is to develop a plan, implement, train and maintain.