Today's food industry is very complex. Most food products are produced on an industrial scale and have been sourced, prepared, mixed, processed, packaged, stored, and transported before reaching the wholesalers, grocery stores, supermarkets, and consumers.
The miracle is that things rarely go wrong; modern food production is amazingly safe thanks to advanced processes and strict regulations and monitoring. But when things do go wrong, what do you do?
If there is a food product that is mislabeled or may pose a safety risk to consumers, then action must be taken to remove it from the sale, and food recall is initiated so that consumers can return or discard the product.
To determine if you have the recalled food product in your kitchen, what are some of the most common reasons for food recalls, and how do you find out about them in the first place, I have listed some useful resources below.
Top Reasons Why Food Recalls Happen
Food recalls are issued whenever there is a risk to your health from the food. It's important to note that it is a precautionary measure. If food in your cupboard or fridge has been recalled, it does not necessarily mean that it is affected, but instead that there's a chance it might have been, and it's better to be safe than sorry.
There are three main reasons why a recall of a food product might be issued.
1. Organisms In The Food
There are lots of bacteria and parasites that can live in food and, through ingestion, may cause health risks for humans.
One commonly associated with recalls is salmonella. These bacteria are often linked to eggs and poultry but found on all types of foodstuff. It can cause severe intestinal distress requiring medical attention for some. In a few cases, the infection can spread beyond the intestines and have life-threatening complications.
2. Foreign Objects In Food
Manufacturing processes and strict quality control mean that your food should only contain what you paid for. Rarely, though, you get something extra. This is often harmless, and many will have occasionally found a bug that took a ride with some fruit or vegetables. Sometimes, though, it's something more dangerous.
The industrial automation process means there's a lot of machinery where things can go wrong, and things can break, fracture, or shear off and end up in a bag, jar, or can.
Whenever a foreign object like glass, metal, or plastic ends up in food, it will be recalled. This will usually involve the entire production run, even though the contamination might be limited and only have affected a handful of packages.
Read Also: These 6 Foods May Contain Microplastics! (Here Are The Alternatives)
3. Undisclosed Ingredients
Finally, food will be recalled when it contains an ingredient it shouldn't. This might be an incorrect addition or something that was not featured on the label.
For most people, this might seem unnecessary. The food might need to contain the unlisted ingredient, or the substitution or addition might do little else than affect the taste.
Nevertheless, for some people, this change could have significant, perhaps even fatal, consequences.
For example, if people had a severe allergy to a particular ingredient, they might ingest it, perhaps in a large quantity, thinking they were eating something perfectly safe for them.
Manufacturers have strict processes in place to avoid this sort of event.
However, since many large factories and food processing plants have different product lines, often running simultaneously, these mistakes can happen.
What Do You Do If You Have a Recalled Food Product?
So, what to do if you are affected?
As well as food recalls being rare, it's important to remember that the amount of food that is actually contaminated is usually small. A food recall will take a very low-risk approach and recall far more food than is affected to make absolutely sure it gets as much as possible.
While you must dispose of any uneaten food and should seek advice if you have eaten any, you should not be unduly anxious if you have already eaten it.
If you have food that is subject to a recall, the most important thing is that you should not eat it. If it is unopened, you should not open it to check but instead dispose of it according to the recall instructions, which might mean simply throwing it away or returning it to the store.
You should also check the reason for the recall. If it is because of a bacterial or parasitic contaminant and the food has been opened or prepared, you should disinfect any surfaces it might have been in contact with. You may also need to dispose of any other food that has been stored with it to ensure that the contamination hasn't spread.
If the recall is because of an undisclosed allergen, you should wash any surfaces it has contacted to prevent the allergens from affecting any members of your household who could be at risk.
How To Find Out About Food Recalls?
The problem is that food production is such a complex industry there isn't one single, definitive source for information. It is simply impossible for anyone organization to know everything that happens within the system.
However, there are a number of places you might hear or find out about food recalls. Whether it's somewhere you might hear among other discussions or specifically set up to alerts you to food recalls, here's a list of places.
1. Friends And Family
It's unlikely you spend any time discussing food recalls with friends or loved ones, but you probably all know at least some of what they buy or like.
However, the one thing that groups like this have in common is that they tend to look out for other members, so they will pass on information if they hear anything.
This might be a particularly useful source of information for specific groups; for example, a young parents' group might share information about baby and toddler food. While it might not be the most interesting discussion you have, it could potentially be one of the most important.
2. Your Local Stores
Often the place you buy the food will be the place you can find out about the recall. Because modern logistics are so good, they can often trace all the affected products to the specific store and shelf, so your local store manager will know if they have stocked and sold the recalled products.
Look out for notices at your store, and if it is a small shop and you are a regular customer, the storekeeper might even be able to warn you in person.
3. Social Media
Keep an eye on social media. Even if you don't follow the relevant agencies or manufacturers, anyone can post details of a recall, especially if the relevant batch has been distributed to specific areas or the manufacturer is local. You might see local retailers or news organizations highlighting details of a recall.
Manufacturers, who frequently will not have a direct line of communication with the final consumer, are particularly reliant on social media channels like Twitter or Facebook.
Businesses are encouraged by authorities to use their main channels to publicize any recalls, rather than having recall-specific channels that are unlikely to be followed, so it's worth paying attention to the social media of your favorite brands.
Quite often, searching with #recall can give you the latest recall notices on many social media channels.
4. State Agencies
Individual state agencies will publish food recalls that affect their state. In some cases, this may be the only governmental publication if, for example, the manufacturer and retailers were all based solely in that state.
The best source of information will be your state government website, but the exact place will depend on the structure of the state government and the state government's website.
The best way to find them is to search for 'food safety' or, failing that, for 'public health' or 'environmental health', which are often the names of the responsible departments.
For example, California manages food recalls within its Department for Public Health and lists all recalls on its website, which also features resources for those affected.
5. Federal Agencies
The federal government has greatly improved how it supports recalls.
There are four government agencies that might be involved in a food recall:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- The Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)
- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- The Department of Health and Human Services
There is now a single site — recalls.gov — that acts as a single point for all recalls, including non-food recalls.
While these are still managed by individual agencies, it does mean it's a lot easier to find everything from a single starting point. So, if you ever want to check whether food or not, this is the place to go.
Foodsafety.gov now provides information for all the food recalls, as well as letting you know what you should do if affected.
Read Also: The Amount of Food Consumed by an Average Person In One Year (It Is More Than You Think!)
Some Interesting Facts About Recalls
Recalls are perhaps more common than you might think. Only big recalls hit the news, but there will be a couple of recalls every day on average. In 2019, the FSIS recorded 124 recalls, while the FDA listed 526 (although the FDA figures also include recalls of cosmetics). 
Despite this, the number of people affected is relatively small. The CDC lists only 11 events in 2020, affecting 2,171 people, including six who tragically died. These events are usually small; over 1,800 cases — although none of the deaths — came from just two of the events, leaving the rest averaging around 30 each. 
While a single incident can have severe consequences and is one too many, it's important to highlight that food production is incredibly safe. And when it does go wrong, the recall process means that many people find out about contamination through the recall, not its effects.