Every year there are hundreds of foodborne disease outbreaks reported in the United States. However, relatively few are actually associated with food recalls.

A study recently published in Epidemiology & Infection and online by Cambridge University Press compared 226 outbreaks associated with food recalls with those not associated with recalls during 2006–2016.

The study, led by Qihua Qiu an assistant professor of Economics at Augusta University, found that recall-associated outbreaks had, on average, more illnesses per outbreak and higher proportions of hospitalizations and deaths than non-recall associated outbreaks.

The findings suggest that improved outbreak vehicle identification and traceability of rarely recalled foods could lead to more recalls of these products, resulting in fewer illnesses and deaths.

Significant findings

  • The top confirmed cause for recall-associated outbreaks was Salmonella.
  • Pasteurized and unpasteurized dairy products, beef and mollusks were the most frequently implicated foods.
  • The most common “pathogen-food pairs” for outbreaks with recalls were Escherichia coli-beef and norovirus-mollusks.
  • The top pairs for non-recall-associated outbreaks were scombrotoxin-fish and ciguatoxin-fish.

Outbreaks with recalls: 

  • 48% of the recalls occurred after the outbreak
  • 27% during the outbreak
  • 3% before the outbreak
  • 22% were inconclusive or had unknown recall timing.
  • 50% of recall-associated outbreaks were multistate, compared with 2% of non-recall-associated outbreaks

Study conclusions

The study concluded that the differences between recall-associated outbreaks and non-recall-associated outbreaks can help define the types of outbreaks and food vehicles that are likely to have a recall. Improved outbreak vehicle identification and traceability of rarely recalled foods could lead to more recalls of these products and result in fewer illnesses and deaths.

For foods that were less likely to be associated with recalls, such as chicken and leafy greens, the study suggests that an enhanced ability to quickly identify the specific food vehicle in an outbreak investigation could increase the likelihood of a recall.

The study states that “Enhanced food traceability may also speed outbreak investigations and lead to more outbreak-associated recalls. The timing of recalls may affect their impact, which can vary from preventing additional outbreak-associated illnesses to helping develop preventative measures to ensure that similar outbreaks do not occur in the future. A better understanding of how recall timeliness affects outbreak-associated illness numbers could help inform intervention and prevention efforts.”

The full study can be viewed here.

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