Consumers have grown accustomed to the routine of food safety recalls: A food company announces a recall after releasing a product into the market that later turns out to be contaminated with a harmful pathogen, or is otherwise faulty. The company advises customers to check the identifying numbers on the product to see if theirs is part of the recall, and, if it is, return or toss it. However, by the time that happens, much of the affected product may already have been consumed. And, if the product causes an outbreak, it typically infects the majority of its victims before the company can issue a recall. Given that recalls are often not issued until after the damage has been done, the question has regularly been raised in the food industry as to whether or not recalls are an effective tool in food safety. The question was the topic of a debate at this year’s International Association of Food Protection (IAFP) conference in Indianapolis. That debate featured arguments from Barbara Kowalcyk, Ph.D., CEO of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, and Robert Brackett, Ph.D., head of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Robert Brackett, Ph.D.
“I think recalls are absolutely an important part of a food safety plan, but they’re like the airbags in a car,” Brackett told Food Safety News. “They’re a safety device you hope you never have to use.” Companies with weak food safety plans think it’s OK to rely on their recall plan in the event of a contamination, but it should really be a company’s very last line of defense if every other food safety measure fails, Brackett said. The problem with recalls is that a company usually does not even know it needs to issue a recall until a number of illness cases have been detected by healthcare providers and then linked back to a specific food product by public health professionals. At best, it takes a week — but usually longer — between the time that cases are detected and a recall is initiated, Brackett said in the debate at IAFP. Unless technology improves the speed at which outbreaks are traced to a food source, “You’re always going to have this baseline majority of cases before the recall is initiated,” he said. Recalls are also very rarely 100-percent effective at removing a recalled product from the marketplace, Brackett said. There’s always a chance that not all grocery stores will remove the recalled product, and not all consumers who purchased the product will be aware of the recall or take the time to verify whether it’s affected.
Barbara Kowalcyk, Ph.D.
While Kowalcyk agreed that food safety systems should focus on prevention, systems aren’t perfect and so an effective food safety system includes an effective recall element. According to a 2012 joint report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO), food recalls minimize the impacts of food safety system failures on public health and the economy while maintaining a greater degree of public confidence in the food supply. Kowalcyk also pointed out that the number of illnesses in outbreaks typically show a decline after recalls are initiated. She brought up a recent example of a company that was not required to issue a recall for their contaminated products. “What is the alternative to recalls? I had actually debated just getting up here and saying two words and then sitting down,” she said. “Foster Farms.” Beginning in March 2013, Foster Farms had an outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg linked to its raw chicken. Because no laws prohibit Salmonella on raw chicken, the company was never pressured to issue a recall, and its products sickened a steady stream of a consumers for months. Nearly a year-and-a-half later, Foster Farms issued a voluntary, limited recall, but more than 340 people were sickened in the time between when the cause of the illness was identified and when the company issued the recall. “From a public health viewpoint, we could have potentially avoided all of those illnesses,” Kowalcyk said. And while initiating a recall costs a company an average of $10 million, the amount saved in reputation, consumer trust, and the avoidance of additional illnesses is priceless, she said. Brackett and Kowalcyk agreed that the status quo for recalls in the American food system has plenty of room for improvement. Finally, Brackett said, companies that issue recalls have to admit the failure of all their other food safety systems. Effective food safety tools should prevent contamination as opposed to having to react to it, he said. Kowalcyk agreed, but said that an effective food recall could be seen as a preventive way to avoid even more illnesses caused by leaving contaminated products out in the market for longer periods.