How Safe Is Our Food?

Recent trends and case studies, and what they mean for our health

Americans rely on a vast network of farms and businesses to provide safe food daily.  But in recent years, a string of high-profile recalls ranging from romaine lettuce to millions of pounds of beef to Ritz and Goldfish crackers have called into question the system developed to ensure safe food reaches people’s plates. The ubiquity of the problem can make grocery shopping a game of Russian Roulette where what a family has for dinner could make them seriously sick.

CALPIRG Education Fund

Americans rely on a vast network of farms and businesses to provide safe food daily.  But in recent years, a string of high-profile recalls ranging from romaine lettuce to millions of pounds of beef to Ritz and Goldfish crackers have called into question the system developed to ensure safe food reaches people’s plates. The ubiquity of the problem can make grocery shopping a game of Russian Roulette where what a family has for dinner could make them seriously sick.

While our food safety system has improved significantly over the last 100 years, when toxics, fake foodstuffs, and bacteria regularly infiltrated the supply, it is clear there is more work to do.  A modern society relies on ensuring that the daily act of eating does not undermine the health of the population. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to get a handle on trends within the food system as ongoing, individual testing results are hard to access and may not indicate what hazards are reaching people’s mouths.  

In 2011, the United States made significant upgrades to the food safety system by passing the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).  This law, pushed through in the wake of a number of significant food recalls, was supposed to help the nation identify additional dangers by ensuring we were using modern techniques to track outbreaks of contamination like Salmonella and dangerous strains of E. coli, improve regulatory oversight of the food production system to minimize contamination, and update recall laws.

Our food safety system has two lines of defense. First, a series of protections including health standards, inspections, and enforcement help keep contaminants out of the food supply in the first place. Second, when contaminated products make it to store shelves, the recall system helps remove these products from stores, homes and restaurants to keep people safe.  

Evaluating recalls since 2013 can, therefore, provide insight into whether our food is getting safer and can expose critical holes in our food safety infrastructure.  Unfortunately, our research based on recall data from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) shows that the number of food recalls have been increasing from 2013 to 2018:

  • The most hazardous meat and poultry recalls (Class 1) nearly doubled with an 83 percent increase, while overall all recalls of meat and poultry by the FSIS increased by 67 percent.

  • Recalls of produce and processed foods from the FDA largely held steady, with a 2 percent increase over 2013 levels.

  • All food recalls increased 10 percent, with the most hazardous of these edging up slightly at 6 percent.

It is true that the ability to link infections together and trace them back to the source has improved significantly in the last decade through new technology such as Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS). This may explain some of these findings.  But whether we’ve always had a food safety problem and now we can see it, or the problem is getting worse in recent years, misses the point. Americans should be confident that our food is safe and uncontaminated from dangerous bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella.

In addition, the number of recent high profile recalls that stick in the public mind are the tip of the iceberg. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 6 people in the U.S. get foodborne illness with 128,000 individuals hospitalized and 3,000 dying every year. These infections include E. coli and Salmonella poisoning as well as Clostridium, Campylobacter, and Toxoplasma gondii. The cumulative public health risk of foodborne illness warrants further study into causes and solutions.

Several case studies demonstrate the risk posed by gaps in our safety system.

Source and production safety: Often the cause of recalls can be traced back to contamination during production.

Romaine lettuce recall from Yuma Arizona: An outbreak of E. coli in March of 2018 sickened over 200 people and killed five. After 6 months, the FDA determined the outbreak of bacteria most likely originated from infested water used to irrigate the crop. A nearby Concentrated Animal Feed Operation (CAFO) could be responsible.

Foster Poultry Farms Recall: In 2013, federal inspectors cited Foster Poultry Farms more than 480 times for failing to meet food safety standards at three plants in Central California. Those plants were the source of drug-resistant Salmonella outbreak across 29 states and Puerto Rico that sickened 634 people and hospitalized 240.

JBS Beef Recall: 12 million pounds of raw beef products possibly contaminated with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella were recalled starting in October of 2018. Despite being a dangerous pathogen, plants can sell products even if testing reveals Salmonella.

Ritz Crackers & Goldfish: Three million packages of popular snacks were recalled due to possible Salmonella contamination of the whey used in production. This shows companies should be more be diligent about inspecting their own suppliers.

Still contaminated food may reach stores and homes, making the recall system the last line of defense.

Failure of the Recall System: When risky products make it to stores, we need to ensure that removing products from shelves, company stocks, and consumers’ homes happens completely and at lightning speeds. Unfortunately, recent examples make it clear improvements are needed:

Honey Smacks: This popular children’s cereal was recalled after it was linked to a Salmonella outbreak. Later, the FDA issued two additional notices as some stores apparently failed to remove adulterated cereal from their shelves.

Caito Cut Melon Recall: In the United States, nearly half of foodborne illnesses are caused by bacteria on fresh fruits and vegetables.  Pre-cut cantaloupe, watermelon and melon mixes from Caito’s stores in nine states were linked to possible contamination from a strain of Salmonella Adelaide in 2018. Because these products are perishable and raw, a quick and efficient recall system is necessary because any delay risks more illnesses. The CDC linked 60 illnesses to this recall –and that climbed to 77 by mid-July.

Soy Nut Butter Recall: I.M. Healthy Soy Nut Butter spreads and granolas were recalled in March 2017 after E. coli caused 32 illnesses and 12 hospitalizations (9 of which developed a type of kidney failure). However, the FDA found online companies and some stores still selling contaminated butter after the recall was issued.

The food recalls illustrated by these case studies raise concerns about the efficacy of current policies. Adding to these issues, while we buy our food at the same stores, farmer stands, and restaurants, the current, convoluted system splits primary responsibility for different foods between the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the FDA. This has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.

Americans should be able to trust the food they eat is safe from hazards.

Policy Solutions

Our findings make it clear that our food safety defenses need an across the board upgrade.  Gaps in public health protections, enforcement and inspection make it too likely that dangers will reach Americans plates with potentially disastrous consequences.  And, when these dangers are identified through analysis of disease vectors and health impacts, our recall system often allows hazards to continue to impact people’s health.  

To solve these problems, we recommend a serious boost to our food safety system.

Food Production and Testing

  • Test water used for irrigation or watering of produce for hazardous pathogens.

  • Set health based bacterial load levels for agriculture watering to prevent contamination.

Inspection and Monitoring

  • Require plants to identify most common pathogens associated with meat and poultry products as hazards likely to occur and address them in their safety plans.

  • Establish clear enforcement consequences for recurring violations of food safety protections or plans.

  • Update food safety standards at facilities every 3 years.

  • Declare antibiotic resistant strains of Salmonella as an adulterant in meat and poultry;


  • Improve traceability throughout the food supply chain through network-based tracking technologies.

  • Retailers notify consumers that products they may have in their homes are recalled.

Recall Effectiveness

  • Grant USDA mandatory recall authority for mandatory meat and poultry

  • Require disclosure of retailers selling products for all Class I and Class II recalls, establish a timeline for release of that information, and include packaged goods.

  • Penalize companies who continue to sell products after a recall.

  • Develop programs for retailers to directly notify customers about food recalls.

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