Food Safety Magazine published an interesting study on food recalls. The publication tallied recalls from 2015 data from three different agencies—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS), and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The results produced some disturbing insights.
According to the report, the good citizens of Canada and the US experienced 629 food recalls in 2015. One third was due to common, repeat allergens - wheat, eggs, peanuts and dairy, soy, sulfites and various types of tree nuts. Milk was one of the most undeclared food allergens.
Microbiological contamination was equally disturbing. In May 2015, evidence of Clostridium botulinum, a potentially lethal neurotoxin that paralyzes muscles was discovered in canned seafood. At the time, the recall was blamed on an unnamed pathogen. Fast-forward five months and 14 more canned seafood products were recalled -- primarily of cans of albacore tuna and salmon.
July 2015 saw the merger of Kraft Foods Group and H.J. Heinz Company. The new company, Kraft Heinz Company had an abysmal food safety record. Barbecue sauce, Oscar Mayer turkey bacon and even their iconic Kraft slices were all subject to recall. Even bottled water. In June of that year, Niagara Bottling LLC recalled their bottled water because Escherichia coli may have been present in the water probably due to human or animal waste at two Pennsylvania plants. The recall affected over 14 different brands.
Contamination of fresh produce occurred at several stages across the production chain which includes harvesting from the field or orchard, transporting, processing, distribution or display marketing at the grocery store. The report cites seven apple recalls. All but one was due to Listeria monocytogenes contamination. Others included Dole bagged spinach in 13 states due to salmonella bacteria and in April, prepared foods that were sold at a number of major retailers, including Target and Costco. Food products contained spinach potentially contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.
Most cases of product or food contamination have fairly identifiable causes. Sometimes a product gets into the wrong package, or something gets left out of a label or the label is misrepresenting a fact. That was the case with a General Mills recall in that year. The corporation recalled two of their most popular cereals — original Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios. The boxes were labeled as “gluten-free” but breakfast foods contained wheat.
Sometimes, it’s a mystery how the contamination occurred. Food companies in question often respond before the full scope of the contamination can be traced in order to keep exposure and bad press to a minimum. In the beginning of June 2016, General Mills issued a voluntary recall of 10 MILLION pounds of flour because of a suspected health threat risk although there was no clear evidence of cross-contamination. In that same time frame, a century-old Tennessee company, Grain Craft, announced “the intermittent presence of peanuts” in their soft red winter wheat. The FDA tested the Grain Craft mill in question and found no peanut protein, meaning the contamination happened after harvest and processing.
Grain Craft is among the largest independent flour millers in the United States. They don't sell to the public, they sell to the food processors. So the potential for numerous popular brands and food types to be affected by cross-contamination is very real. On June 3, 2016, the first commercial food processor pulled their branded products that used Grain Craft's flour. Hostess recalled over 700,000 products containing the suspect flour after receiving two adverse events involving children with peanut allergies who suffered immediate allergic reactions after consuming Hostess donut products. Further testing on other shipments of flour as well as finished food products revealed low level peanut residues. Soon Kellogg and Pepsi Co issued massive recalls of products that use Grain Craft flour. Meanwhile Grain Craft was frantically recalling millions of pounds of the suspect flour.
On the same day of the General Mills recall, Kashi, owned by Kellogg, announced another major recall of its granola and granola bars The bars in question contained ingredients made from sunflower kernels potentially contaminated with Listeria monocytongenes bacteria. The recall was part of an expanded recall by multi national SunOpta Corp which specializes in organic, non-genetically modified foods.
Whether the contamination occurs in the field, or on the factory floor, clearly, there is a lot of room for improvement on behalf of both the food industry and our regulators.