New report: 300-plus food recalls in 2023, highest since 2020

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BOSTON — In the last six months, lead-tainted applesauce has sickened at least 500 children nationwide and cantaloupe contaminated with Salmonella has led to 400 illnesses and six deaths. These are just two among hundreds of food items recalled last year. A new report released Thursday by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, “Food for Thought 2024,” found that food and beverage recalls nationwide increased by 8% in 2023. Meat, poultry and egg recalls through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hit the highest levels since before the COVID-19 pandemic, while recalls through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have been roughly the same for the last three years.

In Massachusetts, of the 313 food and beverage recalls from the FDA and USDA in 2023, 114 of the foods were sold in the state and there were 4 foodborne illness outbreaks.

“There’s a decent chance that you or someone close to you has become ill from food contamination in the last few years yet didn’t realize it unless the sickness was bad enough to see a doctor,” said Deirdre Cummings, Consumer Program Director, for MASSPIRG Education Fund. “Food safety is important. Contaminated cantaloupe, onions and peaches killed people last year and a wide variety of foods made more than 1,100 people sick.”

The analysis found that almost half of food recalls last year stemmed from undeclared allergens. That category increased 27% over 2022, in part because as of Jan. 1, 2023, manufacturers must disclose sesame in their foods. Sesame is the ninth allergen that must be listed on food labels.

About a quarter of recalls happened because of Listeria, Salmonella, E. coli or contamination from other dangerous bacteria. Recalls caused by foreign objects such as glass, plastic or metal in the product dropped by 40% in 2023.

The total number of recalls under the FDA, which has jurisdiction over most foods, has been virtually unchanged for several years. But meat and poultry recalls under the USDA increased significantly in 2023 – by 31% compared with 2022. The total is still far below the reported numbers during the five years before the pandemic, but last year’s 89 USDA recalls was the highest since 2019.

Food for Thought 2024 examines three big problems with food safety: It takes weeks, months or years to track down the source of food poisoning. After a problem food is identified, recalls often take too long to issue because regulators can’t mandate them. And when recalls are announced, consumers often don’t find out about them in a timely fashion, if ever.

“Everyone needs to do better: food producers, regulators and lawmakers,” Cummings said. “We shouldn’t have to worry that everything from soup to nuts could land us in the hospital.”

Helpful tips to stay informed about food recalls, see our consumer guide.

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