With Memorial Day picnics and barbecues on deck, how to make sure your food is safe

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WASHINGTON The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2022 issued nearly 300 food recalls and public health alerts — a lot, but well below pre-COVID-pandemic levels. Food for Thought: Why nearly 300 foods were recalled in 2022, a new analysis by U.S. PIRG Education Fund of government data, delves into the specifics, what families can do to protect themselves and how to improve public awareness of recalls. Food contamination hospitalizes 128,000 Americans and kills 3,000 each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

“It’s troubling to know that experts say about 50 million people get sick in some way from food every year, but most people don’t know it or don’t report it,” said Teresa Murray, Consumer Watchdog for U.S. PIRG Education Fund. “That prevents officials from investigating and perhaps helping others avoid an illness or allergic reaction.”

Recalls and alerts involving one of the biggest food poisoning threats – Salmonella – nearly doubled in 2022 compared with pre-pandemic 2019. However, there were fewer recalls and alerts for many other food contaminants, including Listeria, E. coli and foreign materials.

Meat and poultry recalls through the USDA have dropped in half over the last three years, compared with pre-pandemic. A dearth of food inspectors and fewer non-COVID-related doctors’ visits may be part of the reason. The government initiates food recalls for one of three reasons: One, if regulators test or flag a product. Two, if people get sick and go to the doctor, then investigators trace what the patients ate to a specific food item. Three, if food companies find issues during their own testing.  

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The most common reasons for food recalls and public health alerts in 2022, according to Food for Thought, were contamination with undeclared allergens, Listeria, Salmonella or foreign materials such as metal and plastic. Some recalled items somehow even contained Hepatitis A or the active ingredient in Viagra. The wide array of tainted products included produce, infant formula and hundreds of thousands of pounds of ground beef and chicken.

Even uncontaminated foods can be dangerous, if not handled properly.

“As we approach Memorial Day weekend, it’s important to know how to keep food safe, and then do it. Don’t let your picnic or barbecue go bad like potato salad in the sun,” Murray said. “We know some foodborne illnesses including Salmonella and Listeria occur more often when food is left out in warm temperatures.”