Meat recalls during the first half of the year have taken on some unusual patterns. The number of recalls for pathogens found in beef, pork, and poultry has dropped off dramatically, while the recall of meat and meat products for allergens has spiked.
And it’s that increase in allergen-related recalls that worries Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s under secretary for food safety. She announced Thursday that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced Thursday was issuing instruction for its inspectors in an effort to stem the rise in undeclared allergens and other ingredients.
“This rise is of particular importance to me both as a medical doctor and as a parent, especially as recent reports have shown that the number of children with allergies is on the rise,” Hagen said. “FSIS will continue to improve its efforts to ensure that public health and labeling requirements are met.”
FSIS reacted after seeing 27 recalls for undeclared ingredients in the first six months of 2011; 20 were the result of undeclared allergens. In the preceding two years combined, FSIS issued recalls for a total of 32 undeclared allergens.
While allergen-related recalls are up, recalls for meat contaminated with pathogens were running at historically low levels during the first six months of 2011.
Beef recalls for E. coli O157:H7 contamination have so far this year totaled 21,080 pounds. In many years prior, millions of pounds of ground beef were recalled in the first half of the year, and often went hand-in-hand with multi-state outbreaks of O157.
So far in 2011, only five of 45 meat recalls made at the request of FSIS involved disease-causing E. coli contamination.
With the exception of a March 8 recall by Creekstone Farms Premium Beef in Arkansas City, KS for 14,158 pounds of ground beef, all the other meat recalls were well below 5,000 pounds.
Among the others recalling meat so far in 2011:
— Irish Hills Co., 900 lbs.
— Ford Depot #25, 500 lbs.
— Palmyra Bologna, 2,000 lbs.
— American Food Services, 3,170 lbs.
Two recalls were for Salmonella contamination and four involved Listeria contamination.
During the past decade, meat recalls for E. coli contamination recorded both big spikes and sharp declines like those now being experienced.
Discoveries of E. coli-contaminated meat often peak during the hot months of summer. Only June is included in the first half figures, meaning the rest of the summer will tell the full story of 2011.
As for the new instructions on allergens, FSIS personnel are charged with making establishments aware of the importance and prevalence of undeclared allergens in meat and poultry products, and how to best ensure labels are kept accurate and current.
According to FSIS, In many of these cases, the recalls were prompted by a change in product formulation or a change in a supplier’s ingredients that was not noted on the labels.
Undeclared allergens can result in adverse health reactions. Included in the category of allergens are: wheat, Crustacean shellfish (e.g. shrimp, crab, lobster), eggs, fish, peanuts, milk, tree nuts (e.g., almonds, pecans, walnuts) and soybeans.
“I am confident that FSIS inspectors and establishment personnel will take a close look at any changes or variations in their ingredient labeling,” said Al Almanza, administrator of FSIS. “This is an important issue, and a good opportunity to evaluate and work on our best practices.”
Mislabeling for one of the eight main allergens listed above typically results in a Class I recall because of the associated public health risk.