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What Is a Food Recall?

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on June 15, 2021

You can shop in grocery stores and dine in restaurants with confidence that the food you’re paying for is very unlikely to make you sick. But every now and then, problems in growing or packaging foods can occur that let a few bad apples into the U.S. food supply, such as lettuce laced with E. coli or canned spaghetti sprinkled with broken glass. When this kind of contamination is discovered, public health authorities issue a food recall, in which a product is taken off the market in order to protect U.S. consumers.

Who Recalls Tainted Food?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issues recalls when meat, poultry, eggs, or products made with these foods are suspected of being contaminated. Meanwhile, the FDA issues recalls when suspicions arise about other foods, including pet food and animal feed. And recalls of pet food aren’t just intended to keep your dog or cat from getting ill; handling contaminated pet food could make you sick, too.

Food Recalls Are Common

Food recalls sometimes make splashy headlines, such as when a meat processor in California had to recall 143 million pounds of beef that was inadequately inspected in 2008. However, most food recalls get far less attention. In 2019, the USDA issued 124 recalls, which accounted for more than 20 million pounds of food.

Why Are Foods Recalled?

The major reasons that the FDA and USDA recall foods include:

  • The manufacturer or public health officials discover that a food is contaminated with bacteria or other germs. Some of the more common bacterial causes of contaminated foods have become household names, including salmonella, E. coli, and listeria. When two or more people get sick from consuming the same contaminated food, the CDC declares a foodborne disease outbreak. The CDC will monitor the situation, help identify the source, and issue alerts to the public about how to protect themselves.
  • Consumers discover foreign objects in a product. Manufacturing mistakes can result in food containing nonfood ingredients that could cause harm if consumed. Examples of foods recalled due to the presence of foreign objects include meatloaf and pureed pork with broken metal bits, chicken pot pie containing pieces of plastic, and baby food containing small pieces of glass.
  • The food product contains ingredients not listed on the label. Occasionally, manufacturers ship food products containing ingredients that are not listed on the label. That can be a serious problem for people with certain food allergies. For example, in 2021 a company that makes poultry meatballs and pork patties neglected to list egg, milk, and wheat -- all common food allergens -- on product labels, resulting in a food recall by the USDA. These recalls prevent people with food allergies, who rely on ingredients lists to protect themselves from allergens, from getting sick. For example, if you have an allergy to wheat, unknowingly consuming even a modest amount of the grain could cause mild symptoms, such as hives, or might induce a severe allergic reaction in the form of anaphylaxis, which can cause fainting, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, and other symptoms.

What Should You Do if a Food You Purchased Is Recalled?

Following a few basic steps can keep you from consuming tainted food and beverages, and ease your mind.

  • If you purchased a recalled food, check the details before taking action. Food recalls provide specific details about which products are suspected of being contaminated. For example, a recall may note that only products shipped to specific states are at risk for contamination. In other cases, the recall may only apply to products stamped with specific lot numbers, which indicate the product’s manufacturing history and can be found on a package label.
  • If you have purchased the recalled product, do not eat it. Ignoring a food recall could expose you and your family to toxins, unwanted ingredients, and allergens that could make you or others sick. If it’s a packaged food, don’t open it. Return it to the store where you purchased it for a refund or throw it out. In the latter case, follow any special instructions for disposal that may be included in a recall.
  • If you already ate food that has been recalled, don’t freak out. The majority of food recalls are not associated with outbreaks of foodborne illness, according to FoodSafety.gov, a website operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In many cases, food recalls are issued as a precaution and the potential for getting sick if you consume a product is low. Still, if you have symptoms you can’t explain, especially gastrointestinal problems, see a doctor.
  • Clean anything that came in contact with a recalled food contaminated by germs or allergens. Germs spread fast, so if you had a contaminated food in the refrigerator or prepared it on a cooking surface such as counter or cutting board, take some time to clean up. Likewise, a person in your household who is allergic to an undeclared ingredient in a recalled food who encounters traces of the substance could get sick. FoodSafety.gov recommends washing affected surfaces with hot, soapy water, letting them dry, then wiping the surfaces with a diluted bleach solution (1 tablespoon unscented liquid bleach in 1 gallon of water).

If you think that you or someone you know became sick from eating a certain food, contact your local health department. Your actions could help prevent others from becoming ill.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: "Outbreak of E. coli Infections Linked to Romaine Lettuce."

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

FoodSafety.gov.

FDA Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts.

FARE: "Wheat Allergy."

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