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Issues Of The Environment: Food Recalls Are Increasing And There Are Ways To Stay Safe

Jan 30, 2019

Kristen Schweighoefer, environmental health director for the Washtenaw County Health Department
Credit Washtenaw County / washtenaw.org

Salmonella, E. Coli, and other pathogens have been more prevalent in food lately, thus leading to an unusually high number of food recalls.  In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair speaks to Kristen Schweighoefer, environmental health director for the Washtenaw County Health Department, about why such recalls have increased and what we can do to avoid food-borne illnesses.


Overview

  • A number of high-profile outbreaks hit Washtenaw County in 2018, including a deadly E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce, a widespread Salmonella outbreak traced to Kellogg’s Honey Smacks breakfast cereal, and a nationwide Salmonella outbreak traced to ground beef from a subsidiary of the world’s largest meatpacking company, JBS. There were 703 serious food recalls in 2018.

  • In January, the U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) Education Fund released an study that showed food recalls have increased alarmingly in the past 5 years. Food recalls are up 10% for all foods, and meat and poultry recalls, which arise because of the potential for serious health problems, are up 83 percent.

  • Better detection has been widely blamed for the increase. However, it is more likely that other factors are to blame, including the many steps in the food to consumer chain, lack of a strong monitoring system that can trace each of the steps, and laxity in governmental standards that allow dangerous strains of Salmonella in meat and fail to monitor for contamination in water used for irrigation.

  • Kristen Schweighoefer, Environmental Health Director, Washtenaw County Health Department, will explain some of the reasons why we are seeing more food recalled and what our listeners can do to stay safe.

Study Published January 2019 Highlights the Increase and Reasons for Food Recalls

Likening a trip to the grocery store to shooting craps, a consumer watchdog group is reporting that data from the U.S. government shows food recalls are on an upward trend, which the advocates say could be reversed with common sense. Overall, food recalls increased 10 percent from 2013 through 2018. Meat and poultry recalls initiated because of the potential for serious health problems skyrocketed 83 percent, according to the report from U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) Education Fund. The Philadelphia organization is not part of the U.S. government. It is an independent, non-partisan group with a mission to work for consumers and the public interest.

In the report released in January 2019, PIRG officials acknowledged that advances in science and technology are likely responsible for some of the increase because they have improved detection and investigation capabilities. However, the consumer group says the research shows “serious gaps in the food safety system” during the same time period. “The food we nourish our bodies with shouldn’t pose a serious health risk. But systemic failures mean we’re often rolling the dice when we go grocery shopping or eat out,” said PIRG’s Adam Garber in a news release about the report. “We can prevent serious health risks by using common sense protections from farm to fork. “These recalls are a warning to everyone that something is rotten in our fields and slaughterhouses. Government agencies need to make sure that the food that reaches people’s mouths won’t make them sick.”

 

The PIRG report suggests several steps government and industry could take immediately to reduce the risks of recalls as well as foodborne illnesses. The organization cites as cases in point a variety of high-profile outbreaks in 2018, including a deadly E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce, a widespread Salmonella outbreak traced to Kellogg’s Honey Smacks breakfast cereal, and a nationwide Salmonella outbreak traced to ground beef from a subsidiary of the world’s largest meatpacking company, JBS.

Links and chinks in the chain

The wide variety of foods implicated in those outbreaks have a common denominator, according to the PIRG report. They are all part of the “interconnectedness” of the U.S. food supply chain. “The United States food supply chain is increasingly interconnected and disaggregated. The path from the farm to the grocery store has become increasingly complex,” the PIRG report says.

 

“There are separate processes for food production, distribution, processing, retailing, and preparation. Each one of those steps from farmer to consumer can also involve additional processes like aggregating, storing, and further processing food. These additional connections increase potential points of contamination and risk contamination spreading throughout large sections of our foodstuffs.” But that complicated trek from food producers to dining room tables and lunch boxes isn’t as difficult to navigate as some industry and governmental entities contend, according to the consumer advocacy group. A couple of particularly easy first steps would be to require irrigation water to be tested for pathogens and to make it illegal to sell meat that is contaminated with Salmonella.

 

“Archaic laws allow meat producers to sell contaminated products: It is currently legal to sell meat that tests positive for dangerous strains of Salmonella. A case study of the recent recall of 12 million pounds of beef sold by JBS could likely have been prevented if it this policy was changed,” the report states.

 

From there, the map to safer food is, in large part, just that: a map. The PIRG report calls for immediate action to make it possible to trace food back through the supply chain. “Tracing the cause of outbreaks or identifying contaminated food in the market often takes too long, which has serious public health consequences,” the organization contends. “From identifying the cause of contamination, identifying the variety of products affected by the contamination, removing them from shelves, to notifying consumers who may have already purchased them; identifying that there was a contamination only scratches the surface of the problem.

 

“Transaction information can be vital to containing the public health impacts of contamination, like in the romaine lettuce case. Similarly, this information can help in identifying the cause of contamination.”

 

Traceability problems have plagued outbreak investigators for years, but the 2018 E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma, AZ, growing area brought it into the brightest of spotlights. As people were becoming sick, being admitted to hospitals, and dying, government investigators and businesses along the romaine supply chain struggled to navigate a snarl of incomplete and sometimes unavailable shipping and receiving records.

 

The PIRG report suggests the traceback problems can be resolved with two bullet points:

  • Implement network-based food tracking technologies from farm to fork.

  • Have FDA ensure enforcement of recalls by increasing consequences for companies continuing to sell products. This would include requiring information about products being pulled off shelves and requiring retailers to confirm that they executed the recall with haste;

Calling All Recalls

A four-bullet approach is the consumer group’s solution for the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as retailers, when it comes to improving the recall process:

  • Have FDA make its final guidance on naming retailers during food recalls more comprehensive by requiring disclosure for all Class I and II recalls, establishing a timeline for information release, and commitment to apply guidance to packaged goods;

  •  

  • Have FDA ensure enforcement of recalls by increasing consequences for companies continuing to sell products. This would include requiring information about products being pulled off shelves and requiring retailers to confirm that they executed the recall with haste;

  • Have retailers establish a more effective recall system to notify consumers that products they may have in their homes are recalled. This can involve using information from store loyalty programs to notify consumers that products they’ve purchased could be contaminated; and

  • Grant USDA mandatory recall authority for contaminated food.

Moo-ve over

The intersection of animal agriculture and field-grown foods gets a fair amount of ink in the PIRG report. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are known to the public as feedlots and to food safety experts as pathogen problems.

“As seen in the case of the romaine lettuce outbreak, the failure to reign in the activities of CAFOs has led to the emergence of antibiotic resistant infections that have far reaching consequences in our food supply,” according to the PIRG report. “HACCP programs may help as an ex-post review of safety standards but maintaining a clean source would go a long way in preventing contamination.”

To prevent cross-contamination from animal operations, PIRG suggests:

  • Establishing and setting bacterial load for agricultural water as required by proposed rules under the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA); and

  • Testing water that is in the proximity of CAFOs or used for agricultural water or crop irrigation for pathogenic bacteria with molecular-based technology instead of the standard culture-based technology to shorten time needed for detection and increase accuracy.

PIRG officials said data for the recall portion of their report came from the FDA and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The FSIS publishes yearly summaries on recall data on the USDA’s website. For the FDA data, the analysts submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for information on issued recalls “to help address gaps on the data on their website.”

 

The total number of recalls from the FSIS and FDA were combined to produce an average for the total number of recalls, according to the PIRG report. To isolate the number of FDA recalls, only recall events were counted. Duplicate recall numbers were excluded. This was done, according to the report, because there were multiple recall numbers associated with single recall events. This report was concerned with the number of recall events.

The analysis follows a year full of food-safety scares. Two E. coli contaminations in romaine lettuce left five dead and more than 100 hospitalized. A salmonella outbreak in raw beef sickened 246 people and caused 12 million pounds of beef to be discarded.

 

Though last year's 703 recalls were a 10 percent rise over 2013's tally, 2018 fell short of the five-year peak of 905 in 2016. Over the five-year period, poultry posted the most recalls (168), followed by beef (137) and pork (128).

The report, which analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, shows the most serious meat recalls are on the rise. Among meat and poultry, the number of Class I recalls increased by 83 percent, nearly doubling, since 2013. Class I, the most serious of the recalls, is issued when there is a reasonable probability the food will cause health problems or death.According to the American Association of Meat Producers (AAMP), which says it's North America's largest meat trade organization, Class I recalls can occur because of misbranding  or undeclared allergens.

"While there has been an increase in recalls in recent years, the industry will continue to work diligently with FSIS (USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service) to take better control of those circumstances," AAMP Executive Director Chris Young said. Aside from meat, processed food and produce recalls increased 2 percent. Ritz and Goldfish crackers, Honey Smacks cereal and melon and soy nut butter all had recalls over the five-year period.

PIRG offered a number of potential reasons for the increase in recalls but could not identify a single root cause. Whatever the cause, the food industry and regulators should take note of the report's findings, said Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest." Numbers aside, any time you see large amounts of contaminated meat reaching consumers, that is a problem," she said.

PIRG called for a number of changes to the U.S. food system, some of which are championed by food safety advocates. Among them is better testing of irrigation water. Contaminated water on or near farms was linked to both of 2018's romaine lettuce outbreaks.

 

PIRG supports more stringent inspection and monitoring of food producers, granting the USDA mandatory recall authority for meat and poultry and penalizing companies who continue to sell after a recall. The group wants to improve the systems by which retailers alert customers of recalls and the technologies used to trace contaminated produce and meat through the food supply.

Garber suggested consumers cook their meat to temperature and properly wash their vegetables. To stay up to date on what might be contaminated, he said, consumers can sign up for FDA and USDA recall alerts and use the resources grocery stores offer to alert their customers to recalls.

 

In a Thursday tweet, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said his agency made changes to improve the food recall process over the past year, particularly when it comes to informing shoppers."More actions to improve our recall policies are planned, including ways to further improve our ability to track and trace products through the supply chain. We’ll continue to communicate on these efforts in the coming year," he said.

Washtenaw County Food Safety Monitoring

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year roughly 1 out of 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick; 128,000 are hospitalized; and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. These illnesses and deaths cost Americans billions of dollars each year due to medical expenses and loss of productivity. The Environmental Health Division licenses and inspects over 1,000 food service establishments within Washtenaw County. The purpose of conducting these inspections is to ensure that safe food is being served to the public.

Residents of Washtenaw County can subscribe to this link to be informed of food recalls that affect the county.

How Food Recalls Come About

Since the Food Safety Modernization Act became a law in 2011, the FSMA granted the FDA the authority to force companies to recall foods versus waiting for a voluntary recall. (Like most pieces of the federal food system, the responsibility for recalls is spread out between the USDA, FDA, Food Safety Inspection Service, and the companies manufacturing and selling these products. The USDA — which primarily handles meat, poultry, and egg products — can only force a recall if it receives an unopened package of contaminated food from someone who got sick.)

 

Companies of a certain size are also required to follow a HACCP plan that identifies possible hazards in the food chain and identifies ways to check and control for them. In theory, that means there should be less lag time between discovering a contamination and removing it from public consumption — as well as fewer instances of contaminated food getting out at all.

 

But the chance that a person might come into contact with a product deserving of a recall over 8,000 times in one year sounds scary. The recalls that make it into the headlines are even worse still. In 2014, nearly nine million pounds of beef were recalled after the Food Safety Inspection Service discovered it came from "diseased and unsound animals" that had not been properly inspected. Seven years ago, the Peanut Corporation of America knowingly sent out salmonella-tainted peanut butter which resulted in the deaths of nine people and over 700 illnesses. An investigation resulted in the recall of two years' worth of peanut butter produced by the company, and eventually, jail time for the company's CEO.

When do recalls happen?

Though companies can issue recalls for any reason, they are only required to do so in the case of "adulterated" food. This term, which was written into food safety law in 1938, typically refers to food that contains known poisons, was prepared under insanitary conditions, anything has been omitted or substituted that is written on the label, and others.

 

In 2013, Foster Farms chicken caused an estimated 2,500 people in Washington and Oregon to fall ill from salmonella, yet the USDA was powerless to force a recall. Robert O'Connor, a veterinarian and lead food safety specialist for Foster Farms, told The Oregonian, "We regret any illnesses that might occur… This is raw poultry. Raw poultry by its nature can contain bacteria." And by law as well. Unlike the deadly E. coli O157:H7, salmonella is not automatically considered an adulterant in any food regulated by the USDA. Though officials continued to contact Foster Farms about the outbreak, there wasn’t much else to be done since, technically, it was legal.

 

Before 1994, that dangerous E. coli strain was also legal until an outbreak originating with Jack in the Box sickened over 600 people, killed four children, and left many more with permanent health issues. When the government termed it an adulterant (and companies lost a lawsuit to keep that from happening), companies were forced to start testing for it. "The number of recalls absolutely spiked," says Bill Marler, a prominent foodborne illness lawyer and attorney. The cost of those recalls became expensive enough that companies invested in getting E. coli out of their meat. "It used to happen every other week — today we hardly ever see a recall."

 

But most companies don’t want their customers to get sick, and they don’t want their brand associated with foodborne illness or death. (Just look at how Chipotle’s stock has fallen since it became the subject of a multi-state outbreak of three different foodborne illnesses.) In fact, since the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act went into effect in 2004, the leading cause of recalls have been unlabeled allergens. This could be caused by improper cleaning of machinery or because the wrong label was put onto the package.

 

According to the FDA's regulatory procedures manual, manufacturers "may initiate a recall at any time to fill their responsibility to protect the public health from products that present a risk of injury or gross deception, or are otherwise defective." According to David Crean, vice president of corporate research and development at Mars, a recall usually starts with the identification of a problem. Afterward, company would pull together a team to look at the situation and "do very careful risk assessments looking at what had happened." This step is important since the size of a recall depends on how much product has actually been affected — and you can't know that without having some idea of where the problem came from in the first place.

 

"What happens next is all about the issue," says Crean. "If it's a significant safety issue, it's a clear recall situation." Mars's next steps would be to contact the press, reach out to trade partners to make sure product is removed from the shelves, and ask people to return the product or throw it away. "The hierarchy of thinking we go through is to protect the consumer, brand, and business," Crean explains.

 

The final step of the recall process (and often the most expensive) is that of actually removing food from shelves and disposing of it. If a product is recalled while it's still in company warehouses, the issue is much easier to deal with, but in many cases it has already been sent to hundreds of stores throughout the country. The company has to pay for each of those products to be disposed of, replaced, and — if necessary — shipped back to them. "It's a lot of hassle for trade partners to send things back to us," Crean says. And that's just half of it. "You've got to be very careful of how you dispose of these products because you can create more problems." He cites a few occurrences 20 years ago when products were simply sent to landfills and people fished them out to resell. "That doesn't happen anymore."

 

Sometimes, depending on the reason for the recall, companies can rework their products into pet or animal feed and even fertilizer. In the case of meats, if they are cooked at a high enough temperature to kill the pathogen present, they're considered safe for human consumption. An entire secondary market devoted to turning once-recalled meat into processed foods exists, and consumers have no way of differentiating between products made from always-safe or recalled meats — for better or worse. In the case of a labeling mistake, products could just be rewrapped, though Crean says that's a rarity at Mars, since foreign bodies can enter the product in the process.

 

Without evidence of actual willful wrongdoing on the part of a company, recalls carry no penalties from the government, but they quickly become expensive. According to a report by the Grocery Manufacturer's Association, "81 percent [of] respondents deem financial risk from recalls as significant to catastrophic." Major retailers who have to remove defective or contaminated products "generally are reluctant to continue business with the manufacturer," according to a report by the ACE Group. "Often, they will pull not just the defective or contaminated merchandise off the shelf, but the manufacturer's entire product line."

 

In 2010, 500 million eggs were recalled after causing the largest salmonella outbreak in FDA records. The egg industry as a whole — not just the manufacturer behind the recall — lost an estimated $100 million in revenue in September 2010 alone as sales dropped due to negative media attention. When Peter Pan peanut butter tested positive for salmonella in 2007, it cost parent company ConAgra over $78 million in recall costs. But a few years later, the Peanut Corporation of America scandal cost the peanut butter industry an estimated one billion dollars, proving that recalls are expensive to more than the company at fault.

 

"In the long run, it's the cost and bad publicity of recalls that ultimately drives the supply chain to fix the problem," Marler says. Though litigating against companies who have caused illness or injury — Marler's bread and butter — "certainly help the process along," recalls can cost "20 to 50 times more."

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu