COVID's surprising role in the surge of food recalls

By Julia Ries | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published May 13, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Various products, from nuts to ground beef, have been recalled due to contamination concerns with pathogens like Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli.

  • Fluctuations in recall numbers are normal, and most recalls are precautionary measures rather than responses to actual outbreaks, according to experts.

  • Food recalls are primarily preemptive, aiming to minimize the risk of illness by removing potentially contaminated products from the market.

Earlier this month, an assortment of Planters peanuts and mixed nuts were recalled over concerns they contained Listeria.[] Similarly, a variety of chocolate-covered pretzels and cookies were recalled due to fears the snacks were riddled with Salmonella.[] Recently, over 16,000 pounds of raw ground beef sold at Walmart were pulled from the shelves due potentially being contaminated with E. coli.[]

Recent recall announcements—released by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)[] and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)[]—go on and on: All kinds of snacks, candies, produce, and meats have regularly been pulled from the shelves of grocery stores over the course of the past few months because pathogens capable of triggering foodborne illnesses have made their way into the products. The constant stream of food recalls begs the question: Are food recalls increasing? And, if so, what’s causing that?

According to Brian Labus, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, there’s nothing to be concerned about. If anything, the influx of food recalls suggests the food safety system in the U.S. is working. “Most recalls do not occur because people got sick but rather because there is the potential that people could get sick. By recalling the products, we limit people's exposure to dangerous foods and products and prevent illness,” Dr. Labus told MDLinx

Are food recalls becoming more common?

It might seem like federal agencies are recalling more products now than ever before. A recent report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund[] found that food and beverage recalls grew by 31 percent in total in 2023, with meat, poultry, and recalls hitting their highest level since before the pandemic. But Dr. Labus says there’s always a perception that things are getting worse when, in actuality, that’s not the case. “The number of recalls varies from year to year and most of those are not due to pathogens,” Dr. Labus explains.

According to Vanessa Coffman, PhD, Director of the Alliance to Stop Foodborne Illness, it’s normal for the amount of recalls to ebb and flow from year to year. There were fewer recalls during the beginning of the pandemic (31) and there was an uptick in recalls as the pandemic waned (47).[][] “Part of that uptick was that the government was able to do more testing because lab capacity wasn’t needed for COVID-19 tests,” says Dr. Coffman. 

Simply adding up the number of recalls that occurred in, say, 2023 and comparing that to the number of recalls recorded in 2017 doesn’t explain what is going on, says Dr. Labus. It’s crucial to consider the magnitude of the food supply in the U.S.—it’s gigantic. “Eight tons of recalled ground beef is a lot of food,” he says, “but it doesn't mean the problem is widespread when you consider that Americans consume 15 million tons of beef each year.”

Why food recalls are so important to pay attention to

While it might seem that food recalls are issued because products are making people sick or causing a foodborne illness outbreak,[] that’s usually not the case. In most cases, food recalls are issued to prevent illness. The CDC []—and other agencies such as the USDA—are constantly monitoring potential food contaminations, explained Robert Bonomo, MD, to MDLinx. Dr. Bonomo is a professor in the department of medicine at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

Further, says Dr. Labus, “Our surveillance system is designed to catch these problems and notify consumers before they get sick.” It’s the system’s way of ensuring the country’s food supply is safe and that people don’t wind up sick. “While it may not seem like it, recalls are evidence that our food safety system is working, not that our food supply is unsafe,” he added.

Some of the recalls are related to undeclared allergens—not pathogens.[] “These can be a serious problem for people with severe allergies, but they don't pose an illness risk for most consumers,” says Dr. Labus. 

That said, pathogens, like high toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) and Listeria, do get into our food from time to time. If ingested, they can cause serious illness in certain people, such as young children, the elderly, and pregnant people. 

Yes, foodborne illnesses, in general, are increasing

Estimates from the CDC suggest that roughly 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses, like Salmonella, every year.[] “Three thousand people die every year from something they ate, while 128,000 people are hospitalized every year from foodborne illness,” Dr. Coffman added.

A study published in 2023 found that foodborne illnesses have been gradually rising year after year.[] The reasons for this growth are multifactorial and can likely be attributed to intensive animal farming methods, changes in food production and distribution processes, increased imports of contaminated food, and the population’s dietary changes.[] There’s also the question of whether outbreaks are indeed becoming more common or if our surveillance is simply improving.

Ultimately, it’s unclear how these factors have affected the prevalence of food recalls, according to Dr. Labus. Most food recalls are sporadic and not part of an outbreak. “It is possible that all or some of those things are changing the food supply, but there isn't a clear connection with changes in recalls,” he said.

Dr. Coffman says that food contamination might appear to be increasing because people are testing foods more. Plus, our tests are getting better and more sensitive: “Fewer microbes are needed in a sample for them to be detected,” says Dr. Coffman. While it might seem concerning that more foods are getting contaminated, she says, it’s actually a good thing pathogens are being detected and people are being alerted about the affected foods.

How people can protect themselves from contaminated foods

Dr. Labus admits that there isn’t too much people can do to completely dodge health risks from the foods they eat. There are certain foods that tend to be higher risk such as ready-to-eat foods like cereal, along with lunch meat. That’s why certain individuals, such as those who are pregnant, are advised to avoid deli meat, soft cheeses, and raw milk products. 

The best way to stay healthy: prevention.[] The easiest way to kill off pathogens is to wash your hands thoroughly and cook foods to optimal temperatures. Public health officials recommend staying up-to-date with the latest food recalls issued by the CDC and USDA. You can also subscribe to Stop Foodborne Illness’s recall e-alerts. “Being alert to CDC and public health warnings regarding outbreaks is key,” says Dr. Bonomo. “Being aware of contaminated food and cleaning food before eating is essential.”

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