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.


    At what point does the consumer take responsibility for their part in the food chain? Most foodborne illnesses are a result of poor handling practices in the home. Perhaps we’ve developed an overconfidence in the food industry and expect that everything we put in our mouths must be completely safe because, hey, it’s regulated?
    In our grandparent’s day they cooked everything well, and took care in the kitchen, because they assumed that everything you ate could potentially kill you.

    • John Munsell

      CMUIR, you are spot on when you state that consumers must accept more responsibility to utilize safe handling practices and proper cooking. Your statement that we’ve developed an overconfidence because our meat is regulated is likewise correct, which needs further explanation. In the mid-90’s, when USDA introduced its HACCP mandate to our meat industry, the agency publicly made the following promises to our industry. Under the HACCP umbrella:
      1. USDA would no longer police the industry, but we would police ourselves.
      2. USDA would disband its previous command and control authority.
      3. USDA would implement a “Hands Off” role in the meat industry.
      4. USDA would not tell plants what they must do, as such decisions would be made by individual plants themselves.
      So, consumers who conclude that the meat has already been regulated are sorely mistaken. From the beginning, USDA intended to deregulate the industry, which also allows the agency to embrace a semi-retired status in meat plants. USDA is paralyzed with fear of litigation from the largest packers, and the easiest way to promote agency comfort is via deregulation, as seen by its “Hands Off” role. USDA-style HACCP does not inspect/regulate meat! Instead, it audits company-produced paperflow. What started off as a pathogen chase, quickly degenerated into a Paper Chase. Meat is not regulated: rather, paperwork is regulated. Huge distinction! John Munsell

  • John Munsell

    I suggest that recalls are an important aspect of our food safety portfolio. In 2002, a FSIS inspector collected a sample of ground beef at my plant & sent it to the USDA lab for analysis, which determined the sample harbored E.coli O157:H7. Thus, I issued a recall for 270# ground beef, of which we received 200 lbs back, if my memory is correct. This instance shows that a goodly portion of recalled meat in some cases can actually be successfully recalled, with an obvious advantage to public health. This situation also shows that recalls can result from adverse test results, and do not require an outbreak to occur first. I disagree with Dr. Brackett’s assertion above that “companies which issue recalls must admit the failure of all their other food safety systems”. USDA/FSIS personnel admitted that the ground beef that I recalled emanated solely from coarse ground beef that I had purchased from an outside source slaughter provider. I ground this Brand-X coarse ground beef without adding any other grinding materials, and shipped it into commerce. And that constitutes a failure in all my food safety systems? Absolutely not. I have zero control over the safety of meat I purchase from my source slaughter providers. Retail meat markets face the same scenario, highlighted by hundreds of sicknesses caused by Foster Farms product to which Barbara Kowalcyk referred above. Are all those retail meat markets which sold Foster Farms product guilty of “failures in all their food safety systems”? And, we can’t test 100% of our meat products, as we’d have nothing left to sell. Adverse lab results do reveal that a problem does exist SOMEWHERE in the food production continuum. Outbreaks and adverse lab results consistently focus on the need to determine the SOURCE of contamination, rather than exclusively focus on the DESTINATION of previously-contaminated meat. Historically, USDA has directed the vast majority of its enforcement actions at the destination, while intentionally ignoring the SOURCE. This virtually guarantees recurring recalls. Why? Because USDA has foolishly (and intentionally!) placed all accountability at the downstream further processing establishment which unwittingly purchased USDA Inspected & Passed meat which was laced with invisible pathogens when it arrived at its docks. And, USDA has traditionally refused to trace the unsafe meat to its origin. Why is this important? In the article above, both Barbara Kowalcyk and Dr. Brackett endorsed the efficacy of Prevention, rather than Reaction. USDA’s sorry history of resolving such cases has systematically required downstream destination plants to implement corrective actions, whle insulating the noncompliant SOURCE of contamination from the responsibility to implement corrective actions. Thus, sloppy dressing procedures continue to exist at the source abattoir with no corrective actions, because USDA has concluded that the problem lies at the downstream further processor. This ain’t science. Dr. Brackett’s ill-advised choice of words above reveal that he endorses USDA’s intentionally faulty policies, guaranteeing recurring recalls and ongoing outbreaks. John Munsell

  • whoisoutthere

    Awesome points Gene. I believe that you are correct. Weak food safety plans, and then recalls because of it. Sometimes the government will issue a recall request based upon inspections, but usually they happen because someone got sick. Just not enough oversight and not enough inspectors. But hey, deregulate the food industry, they have our best interest at heart.

  • Bill Riedel

    I believe we have been living in a fools paradise as far as food safety is concerned. Some time ago I started giving a talk that tries to make us confront reality. Below a couple of slides from the talk:

    “The Public Health Agency of Canada
    estimates that each year roughly one in eight Canadians (or four million
    people) get sick due to domestically acquired food-borne diseases. This
    estimate provides the most accurate picture yet of which food-borne bacteria, viruses,
    and parasites (“pathogens”) are causing the most illnesses in Canada, as well
    as estimating the number of food-borne illnesses without a known cause.
    In general, Canada has a very safe food supply;” Dated : 2013-05-09

    •Question: What is the definition of ‘very safe’? (thruthiness,
    bullshit, wilful blindness, potential collateral damage, petiteichmannism)