Recent food recalls due to contamination from rocks, insects, and bacteria have people worried about the products they’re bringing home.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversee foods brought to market, but the majority of foods aren’t inspected before being sold. Some experts think oversight may be partially responsible for the high number of recalls.
MDs say that contaminated foods can lead to serious illness and that patients should be instructed to seek prompt medical care if they get ill.
Food recalls have plagued shoppers over the last few months, with people discovering that their food has been contaminated with everything from bacteria and undisclosed soy and wheat ingredients to rocks and insects. Trader Joe’s announced three product recalls within one week this July— impacting two cookie products, broccoli cheddar soup and falafel—while Cooperstown Cheese Company recalled cheese products due to potential Listeria monocytogenes contamination.
While no recalls have occurred as of yet, salmonella-contaminated beef purchased from ShopRite has led to six hospitalizations across four states.
How recalls work
Two agencies in the United States oversee the regulation of food safety: the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)—a regulatory agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)—and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Many companies recall foods of their own volition without being prompted by the US government, as they are incentivized to “get ahead of food safety concerns,” according to an article published in Vox. When voluntarily recalling food, companies notify the FSIS or FDA, which then help inform the public of the recall and any risks involved with eating the impacted food.
That said, if the FSIS or FDA become aware of a food safety issue secondhand, they can request a recall. While can refuse this request, the FSIS or FDA can take the affected food, prohibiting its sale.
In this case, “when [the] FSIS or FDA detains and seizes food without the responsible company initiating a recall, the general public is less likely to learn about the food safety risk,” according to the National Agricultural Law Center.
There are likely a variety of reasons for the high number of recent recalls, but poor federal food oversight may play a key role. The FSIS only oversees meat, poultry, and egg products, but it does so before these foods hit the market, meaning contamination or undisclosed ingredients are more likely to be caught early on.
On the other hand, the FDA—which oversees the regulation of nearly every other type of food (or a whopping 80% of what goes to market)—doesn’t conduct food or label inspections ahead of foods hitting the shelves, explains the National Agricultural Law Center.
In fact, the FDA inspects the manufacturers it oversees less frequently. According to the FDA, “High-risk food facilities in the U.S. are to be inspected at least once every three years, while non-high-risk food facilities are to be inspected at least once every five years.” As of 2021, the FDA says, about 55% of food facilities that manufacture human food are considered non-high-risk.
Globalization might also be a culprit. Melvin Kramer, a food safety expert and president of the EHA environmental and public health consulting group, told Vox that in the case of Trader Joe’s, “[I]ts blend of global and local foods made by small-batch producers…raise its risk of running into more safety problems compared with grocery stores that only source food from large-scale producers.”
Should patients be worried?
Dr. Brian Labus, PhD, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, says, “Food-related recalls happen all the time, but we usually don't pay much attention to them. Recalls related to outbreaks capture the headlines, but [they are] relatively rare. Most recalls occur as a preventive step long before people get sick and are typically due to the discovery of unlabeled allergens like eggs, wheat, soy, or nuts.”
According to Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, medical toxicologist and co-medical director and executive director of the National Capital Poison Center, food contamination by listeria or salmonella is fairly common. “Microbial contamination of foods can occur during harvesting, processing, or preparation of foods,” she says. One thing patients should know is that contaminants that cause outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness occur more often in warmer months.
Dr. Labus thinks that the recent recalls due to Listeria are the most concerning, as the bacteria can lead to “an infection [that] can be very serious for pregnant women or immunocompromised patients. These patients are advised to generally avoid foods such as deli meats and soft cheese, as they are the most common sources of Listeria infections.”
According to Dr. Pratima Dibba, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist with Medical Offices of Manhattan, “Food poisoning secondary to contaminated food or consumption of recalled food can be very injurious to a patient's health. Foodborne illnesses can result in severe gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, or combinations [thereof].”
While food contamination is scary, patients should know that recalls can be seen as proof that the system is doing what it’s supposed to, Dr. Labus stresses. “[Recalls] should be seen as a success in removing contaminated products from the market rather than as a failure to produce safe food. The regular monitoring and testing of our food supply is what allows us to identify problems and pull those products from store shelves, hopefully before people get sick,” he says.
“MDs can help their patients stay safe when buying food by reminding them of risks for and potential consequences of foodborne illnesses,” Dr. Dibba says. “Reminding patients to adequately clean fruits and vegetables they have purchased can also be helpful. MDs can also ensure that patients maintain a low threshold [for] seek[ing] medical attention when experiencing early signs and symptoms of a potential foodborne illness.”
Patients should be warned not to ignore food poisoning, as it can lead to dehydration, possible kidney injury, electrolyte imbalances, low blood pressure, syncope, and loss of consciousness, Dr. Dibba adds.