Why Food Recalls Are Getting Worse

This may go down as the year of the massive food recall.

One million pounds of Black Angus beef patties were recalled in August after seven people got sick with E. coli. A few months prior to that, romaine lettuce was recalled in 23 states after it sickened 19 people and hospitalized 12, also due to E. coli contamination.And of course, nothing compares to the more than half-billion eggs recalled nationwide this summer due to a salmonella outbreak that made more than 1,000 people ill.

Aside from these, there were plenty of smaller, but significant recalls of everything, from deli meats to chicken nuggets, and yes, more beef.

One by one, the common items that consumers include on their grocery lists each week are being recalled in bulk. In a very real sense, Americans may never be able to look inside their fridge the same way again.

Between July 2009 and September of this year, there were 85 food products recalled by the Food and Drug Administration, which led to 1,850 sicknesses across the country, according to a joint report from several advocacy groups, including the Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. While these groups do not have statistics from previous years to compare this number to, most food safety experts we spoke with say we have experienced an upward trend in the number of food recalls in recent years.

“Consumers in general are seeing more nationwide recalls on a larger array of products that are affecting them than has occurred in the past,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), a nonprofit.

To a large degree, as Waldrop and others note, the increasing number of food recalls is actually a good thing. Government agencies like the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control have improved their ability to spot dangerous food products and act quickly. The CDC, for example, launched a national health network called PulseNet so that labs around the country can collaborate with one another to analyze food-borne diseases and crack down on bad products more quickly.

“It’s not just that there’s more recalls, it’s that we’re getting a whole lot better at finding them,” said Don Schaffner, a food science professor at Rutgers University and food safety expert.

But it seems unlikely that consumers will take much solace in that. After all, even if the influx of recalls is due to more diligence from the government, the bottom line is that there are still that many food products that need to be recalled from the outset.

“There is an unacceptably high level of food contamination in the food supply,” said Sandra Eskin, director of the Food Safety Campaign with the Pew Charitable Trusts. “And what we’re seeing is that every couple of years, a food gets contaminated that really never had been before.” As an example, Eskin points to an unprecedented massive peanut recall early last year due to salmonella.

Part of the problem in recent years has to do with the way food is produced.

“There has been a change over the last 10 to 20 years where companies are producing large quantities of food and shipping it all over the country,” Waldrop said.

For example, if a batch of spinach from one farm is contaminated with E. coli and gets shipped together with greens from other farms, all of it will get contaminated. This can impact the number of items that get recalled, but at the same time, because more food products are getting mass produced today, there is more likelihood for massive recalls like the egg recall from earlier this year.

“It comes down to concentration and centralization of the food supply,” said Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics and a food studies professor at New York University. “If something goes wrong at a place that produces hundreds of thousands of eggs, they all have to be recalled.  If it’s just a local farmer, it’s just a few dozen.”

Recipe for a Recall

The great irony of recalls is that the foods that are most likely to get recalled are the foods we consider to be the healthiest.

Last year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest compiled a list of the 10 foods that had been recalled most often by the FDA since 1990. Of all the foods in the country, leafy greens topped the list, with 363 reported outbreaks resulting in more than 13,000 illnesses. The rest of the list reads like a parent’s dream diet for their kids: eggs, tuna, tomatoes, sprouts and berries.

In fact, the only item on the list that might normally be considered unhealthy is ice cream, which came in at number seven. Candies and other packaged foods are completely absent, and at least by the standard of recalls, among the healthiest things to eat.

“It’s terrible. Fruits and vegetables are things that we should eat, and shouldn’t have to think twice about,” Eskin said.

So why is it that we can’t?

According to Schaffner, the food science professor, processed foods do include many ingredients that can be exposed to fecal matter and other contaminants that plague healthier foods. But the difference is that packaged foods are usually heated up, which can kill off those bacteria.

“Frozen entrees that you just reheat in the microwave and which have already been cooked carry a lower risk than something like lettuce or tomatoes that come right out of the field,” Schaffner said.

For the time being then, the sad truth is that if you want your kitchen to be reliably recall free, you may want to lay off the fruits and veggies.

The Future of Recalls

While the sheer number of recalls this year may be daunting, there is hope that food safety may improve in the years to come.

In July of last year, the House of Representatives passed a food safety bill that would significantly improve the government’s ability to police food producers, and hopefully prevent product recalls before they happen.

Among other provisions, the new bill would let the FDA require manufacturers to identify potential risks and propose their own safety guidelines to minimize harm, while setting performance standards for driving down contamination levels. The FDA would also have the authority to inspect manufacturing plants every one to three years, rather than every 10. And perhaps most importantly, the bill would give the FDA the authority to require a recall, whereas now, the vast majority of recalls are voluntary on the part of the business.

"The current law we have is a reactionary law, where the FDA just responds to outbreaks, but with this new law, they would actually have authority to put in place processes that would prevent them,” Waldrop said.

At the moment, this legislation is sitting with the Senate, but in the aftermath of the massive egg recall earlier this year, there have been renewed calls from advocates to pass the bill.

Until the bill passes though, there are a few key steps that consumers can take to reduce the risk that recalls pose for them.

For starters, the big four rules to live by, according to the Partnership for Food Safety Education, are that consumers should wash their hands before eating, separate meats and other kinds of produce, cook foods to their recommended temperature and refrigerate items as necessary.

Beyond taking these precautions, you should keep up with news about recent recalls here on MainStreet so that you know what products in your fridge might need to go.

—For a comprehensive credit report, visit the BankingMyWay.com Credit Center.

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