Food for Thought Part 2: An analysis of food recalls for 2022
The most common reasons for food recalls and public health alerts in 2022 stemmed from undeclared allergens, Listeria, Salmonella and foreign materials such as metal and plastic in food. Products affected in 2022 ranged from peanut butter to produce to cookies to infant formula to hundreds of thousands of pounds of ground beef and chicken.
Overall, food recalls and public health alerts in 2022 remained well below pre-pandemic levels, likely fueled by ongoing labor shortages and people’s ongoing reluctance to go to a doctor or urgent care unless absolutely necessary.
However, recalls and alerts involving one of the biggest health threats in food – Salmonella – nearly doubled in 2022 compared with pre-pandemic 2019, a new analysis by U.S. PIRG Education Fund shows. Salmonella causes more than 1 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations and 420 deaths a year.
There were fewer recalls and alerts for many other risks, including Listeria, E. coli and foreign materials in the food.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year reported 221 food and beverage recalls and alerts and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported 68 recalls, for a total of 289 last year. That’s basically flat, up from 286 reported in 2021.
Through the first four months of this year, recalls and alerts have increased slightly and are up 8% for January through April, compared with the same period last year.
The FDA regulates all foods except for meat, poultry and processed egg products. Those are regulated by the USDA.
Recalls and alerts both are warnings that specific food shouldn’t be consumed; alerts are issued instead of recalls when the product is no longer for sale but may still be in people’s freezers or pantries or in restaurants.
While FDA recalls have been at roughly the same level for four of the last five years, 2022 marks the third year in a row that recalls and health alerts through the USDA were only half of the pre-pandemic average from 2017 to 2019. In fact, the combined total for recalls and alerts through the USDA hadn’t been below 100 cases since 2013, until they dropped from 129 cases in 2019 to 50 cases in 2020.
Food sold in grocery stores or restaurants or other outlets gets recalled or flagged in one of three ways:
- People get sick and seek medical care, and then local health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention trace an outbreak to a particular food item. This often occurs with Listeria and Salmonella.
- Consumers file a complaint with regulators or companies. This often occurs with issues such as spoilage or foreign materials found in food.
- A regulator uncovers a problem or the company self-reports a problem after testing or other discoveries.
The good news is that 42% of food recalls last year involved undeclared allergens: milk, nuts, eggs, etc., similar to 2021. So if you aren’t allergic to those ingredients, the recalled food likely wouldn’t have made you sick if you’d eaten it.
The bad news is that allergens can be quite serious for those with issues. About 6% of adults and children suffer from some sort of food allergy, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. The other bad news is it should be easy for food processors and manufacturers to make sure that foods are properly labeled and avoid cross-contaminating food with potential allergens. If they’re this careless with a problem so easy to avoid, you wonder how they handle the issues that are more difficult.
After allergens, the other leading reasons for food recalls/alerts in 2022: Listeria (15%), Salmonella (13%) and foreign objects in the food (9%).
The year also saw some unusual and troubling recalls, with 3% flagged for potential E. coli, 3% for potential lead contamination, one for Hepatitis A and one for being contaminated with Viagra.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly 50 million Americans – one in six – become ill every year from contaminated food or beverages. Among those, 128,000 end up in the hospital and 3,000 die.
As we go into Memorial Day weekend and a summer of more gatherings than we’ve likely seen in several years, two things are true:
- There’s a good chance that you or someone close to you has gotten ill from contaminated food in the last couple of years and not realized it was food poisoning because, thankfully, you didn’t get sick enough to seek medical care.
- Even though some unsafe food will invariably end up in our refrigerators and on our plates without us knowing sooner or later, you can minimize the risk in many cases by taking precautions.
KEY FINDINGS AND TRENDS
As with many aspects of life, the issues surrounding food safety and recalls changed in 2020 and some of the issues carried into 2021. That’s why we didn’t compare 2022 numbers only to 2021. We also compared the numbers to pre-pandemic 2019.
What we found:
- Recalls and public health alerts because of concerns about Salmonella nearly doubled from 2019. There were 39 recalls and alerts in 2022, up from 21 in 2019. We considered that the massive recall of Jif peanut butter in May 2022 (because of potential Salmonella) could have been a factor because it led to other recalls of foods that included Jif peanut butter. But the number of Salmonella-related recalls in 2022 (39) was virtually the same in 2021 (38).
Illness from Salmonella can be quite serious. The CDC says Salmonella causes about 1.35 million infections every year, leading to 26,500 hospitalizations and 420 deaths in the United States. Consuming or touching food or objects contaminated with Salmonella bacteria can cause infection and illness. That’s why health experts urge frequent hand-washing before eating or working in the kitchen or even before putting on makeup or otherwise touching your eyes, nose or mouth.Illnesses caused by Salmonella occur more often in the summer because the bacteria love warm temperatures and unrefrigerated foods at picnics and outdoor gatherings.
- Recalls and alerts related to foreign materials, such as plastic or metal in food dropped nearly in half compared with 2019. Recalls totalled 25 in 2022, compared with 48 in 2019.
- Recalls and alerts related to E. coli were down significantly from 2019. There were 10 E-coli-related recalls and alerts in 2022, down from 25 in 2019.
- Recalls and alerts related to Listeria fell compared with 2019. There were 43 in 2022, compared with 61 in 2019.
Among the phenomena that affected recalls in 2020, that likely carried over into 2021:
- Meat production was halted in many processing plants in the early months of the pandemic.
- When most restaurants closed for indoor dining, at least temporarily in the spring and summer of 2020, some food producers switched from bulk quantities to smaller quantities for grocery stores. This affected food packaging and labeling.
- At the same time, the FDA temporarily relaxed some food labeling rules so food originally intended for restaurants could be sold directly to consumers without a formal nutrition label.
- The FDA also stopped all routine inspections of facilities that manufacture food and other products it regulates. The FDA oversees nearly 80% of the nation’s food supply.
- Like many employers, the government and food manufacturers have had staffing challenges since early 2020, including in food inspections and food testing.
- Perhaps most important, consumers with a suspected gastrointestinal illness or mild allergic reaction were far less likely to go to the doctor or urgent care to get treatment and testing during much of 2020. Illnesses reported from medical providers is one of the key ways that regulators investigate food contamination and problems, and potentially issue recalls or alerts.
How to find out about food recalls
2022’S BIGGEST RECALLS
Here are some of the most significant food recalls from last year:
Similac, Alimentum and EleCare powder infant formula
Abbott Nutrition in February recalled certain lots of its powder formula following complaints about Cronobacter sakazakii or Salmonella Newport. In addition, the company found evidence of Cronobacter sakazakii in its Michigan plant, in non-product contact areas, during routine testing.
In late February, the CDC said it had four reports of Cronobacter sakazakii infections and one of Salmonella Newport. All five infants were hospitalized and two died. “Cronobacter may have contributed to death in two patients,” the CDC said.
This recall set off a nationwide shortage and price gouging involving powdered formula for months.
J.M. Smucker in May 2022 recalled nearly 50 varieties of peanut butter because of potential Salmonella contamination. The peanut butter was distributed nationwide and in 10 foreign countries. In addition, a number of other food products were recalled in the days and weeks following because they contained Jif peanut butter.
A total of 21 illnesses in 17 states were reported by the CDC, including four hospitalizations. No deaths were reported. Salmonella poses the risk of serious infections and sometimes death for children, elderly people and those who are frail or have weakened immune systems.
In 2022, there were 11 recalls for enoki mushrooms. It’s not clear whether they were all related. The CDC said that epidemiologic, laboratory, and traceback data lead officials to conclude that enoki mushrooms imported from China made people sick. While it said that as of April 7, 2023, the outbreak is over, the CDC said it and the FDA are continuing to investigate Listeria and enoki mushrooms and the FDA placed enoki mushrooms from China on a countrywide import alert. In addition, officials say:
- Pregnant women and people who are 65 or older or have weakened immune systems should not eat raw enoki mushrooms, should keep raw enoki mushrooms separated from other foods that will not be cooked and should wash hands and surfaces that have come in contact with enoki mushrooms.
- Restaurants should cook enoki mushrooms thoroughly before serving and should store raw enoki mushrooms separate from foods that will not be cooked.
E. coli outbreak linked to Wendy’s restaurants
Starting in July 2022, health officials received reports of people getting sick with gastrointestinal symptoms. When the investigation was closed in October, the CDC had tallied 109 illnesses, including 52 hospitalizations, in six states: Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and New York.
“More than 80% of sick people who were interviewed by public health officials reported eating at Wendy’s restaurants in several states before getting sick,” the CDC said. “Many of them ate burgers and sandwiches with romaine lettuce, but the specific ingredient that caused the outbreak could not be confirmed.” Wendy’s stopped putting romaine lettuce on sandwiches in several states while the issue was being investigated.
As is the case with most food poisoning cases, “the true number of sick people in this outbreak is likely higher than the number reported … because many people recover without medical care and are not tested,” the CDC said.
Foster Farms of Louisiana in October 2022 recalled about 148,000 pounds of fully cooked frozen chicken breast patties because they could contain hard, clear pieces of plastic. They were produced in August and shipped to Costco distribution centers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah and Washington. They could also have been distributed to Costco stores.
Lakeside ground beef possibly contaminated with E. coli
Lakeside Refrigerated Services of New Jersey in April 2022 recalled about 120,872 pounds of ground beef products that may have been contaminated with E. coli O103. The issue was discovered during routine USDA testing. There were no confirmed reports of illness or adverse reactions connected to these products.
Starting early 2022 and into this year, the CDC investigated two major outbreaks of norovirus linked to raw oysters that were distributed to multiple states. More than 500 illnesses were reported in 19 states through April 2023.
In the first outbreak, cases were reported by Texas and Florida health officials and traced to raw oysters harvested from Galveston Bay, Texas. In this case, a recall was issued. The investigation into the Texas case is ongoing. The CDC said raw oysters from this area in Galveston Bay, Texas, harvested between Nov. 17, 2022 and Dec. 7, 2022, should not be consumed.
The second outbreak was linked to raw oysters from British Columbia. The FDA issued an advisory. The investigation is closed.
Interestingly, the CDC said, “norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States. However, state, local, and territorial health departments are not required to report individual cases of norovirus illness to a national surveillance system. That’s why we may not know about many cases, especially if people do not go to a doctor’s office or hospital. Each year, there are about 2,500 reported norovirus outbreaks in the United States.”
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT THE MOST COMMON REASONS FOR RECALLS
More than 40% of recalls and alerts in 2022 stemmed from undisclosed allergens. The other leading reasons: Listeria, Salmonella and foreign objects in the food.
The allergens cited in 2022 included:
- Peanuts and tree nuts (most common)
- Egg products
- Sulfites (preservatives)
A food allergy is different than a food intolerance. An intolerance can cause digestive issues or a headache, particularly if you eat too much of something. An allergy causes the body’s immune system to react to a food and cause serious symptoms, such shortness of breath, rash or hives, chest pain, a swollen airway or difficulty swallowing.
The other leading reasons for food recalls/alerts in 2022:
Listeria (15%), Salmonella (13%) and foreign objects in the food (9%).
Consuming food contaminated by Listeria monocytogenes bacteria can cause Listeriosis, which can be a serious infection. The CDC estimates that about 1,600 people get listeriosis every year. About 260 die. Symptoms of intestinal illness usually start within 24 hours. Symptoms of serious, invasive illness usually start within two weeks.
Those most at risk for serious infection are pregnant women, newborn babies, people age 65 and older and those with weakened immune systems. The CDC says people who are more vulnerable to serious illness should avoid foods including:
- Unheated deli meat, cold cuts, hot dogs, and fermented or dry sausages.
- Premade deli salads, such as coleslaw, potato salad, chicken salad or tuna salad.
- Unpasteurized soft cheese, such as queso fresco and brie.
- Cheeses sliced at a deli that hasn’t been heated.
- Melon that’s been cut and left out unrefrigerated for more than two hours. (Or more than one hour if exposed to temperatures above 90 degrees.
- Melon that’s been cut and refrigerated for more than one week
- Refrigerated pâté or meat spreads.
People who are exposed can suffer from gastrointestinal symptoms. Symptoms of more serious, invasive illness include muscle aches, headache, loss and balance and stiff neck.
Consuming or touching food contaminated with Salmonella bacteria can cause infection and illness. About 13% of food recalls last year occurred because of potential Salmonella. Salmonella bacteria emerge in the intestines of people and animals. Humans can get infected when they consume contaminated food or water, or come into contact with infected animals, their feces or even something else that’s contaminated.
The CDC says Salmonella causes about 1.35 million infections every year, leading to 26,500 hospitalizations and 420 deaths in the United States. People who are ill suffer gastrointestinal symptoms and fever. Symptoms usually start between six hours and six days after infection, and last from four to seven days without medication.
Antibiotics are often advised for those with severe illness, weakened immune systems, 65 or older, babies younger than 1 year old and adults older than 50 who have underlying medical conditions.
The CDC says salmonella can contaminate:
- Beef and pork.
- Processed items such as peanut butter and stuffed chicken entrees.
Getting sick from Salmonella occurs more often in the summer because the bacteria thrive in warm temperatures and can multiply in foods at picnics and outdoor gatherings. Perishable foods should not be left unrefrigerated for more than two hours, or even more than one hour if outdoor temperatures are above 90 degrees.
Food items are supposed to contain things you can safely consume. But about 9% of food recalls last year occurred because of reports the items contained metal, plastic or other objects not meant to be ingested. In some cases, the foreign materials could cause damage to teeth or cuts in the mouth. In other cases, they could cause damage in the digestive tract if ingested.
Besides metal and plastic, other things found in food last year: bone fragments, cable fragments and soft film.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service inspects meat, poultry, siluriformes (fish) and egg products to make sure products sold commercially meet U.S. safety standards and are properly labeled. The inspections come under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act and the Egg Products Inspection Act.
About 4.5% of recalls last year occurred because of inspection issues. Items can be recalled if, for example, they’re produced in a facility that has not been USDA-inspected or is labeled that it was federally inspected but it wasn’t.
Escherichia coli, commonly known as E. coli, can also be a serious risk. Last year, about 3% of recalls stemmed from potential E. coli contamination.
E. coli bacteria are typically in the intestines of people and animals. Most types of E. coli aren’t a threat. But some strains, such as E. coli O157:H7, can cause serious gastrointestinal issues.
Bad E. coli bacteria can exist in foods including undercooked ground beef and raw vegetables. Healthy people can be ill for a week but recover. People who are more vulnerable, including young children and senior citizens, can suffer more serious, life-threatening issues.
The year also saw some other unusual and troubling recalls, with nine products flagged for potential lead contamination, three for being imported from a country not eligible to export a particular type of food (often fish or egg products,) two for PFAS, one for Hepatitis A and one for being contaminated with Viagra.
WAYS TO HELP YOU AVOID A FOODBORNE ILLNESS THIS SUMMER
Following these easy food safety steps can help you avoid getting sick from many types of food contamination or food poisoning, according to the CDC.
- Clean: This means washing your hands, your utensils and your preparation surfaces frequently. This is particularly important if you’re handling uncooked meat, chicken and other poultry, seafood, flour, or eggs.
And if you touch the water faucet handles with dirty hands, wipe those down too after you wash your hands.
Wash all fruits and vegetables before slicing, peeling and eating.
- Separate: For food items that will not be cooked, keep them separate from raw meat, poultry and seafood.
- Cook: Use a food thermometer to make sure your food is cooked properly to reach a temperature high enough to kill germs. To be safe, use two thermometers in case one is faulty.
Quite simply, undercooked meat and poultry can make you sick. Meat may contain Salmonella, E. coli, Yersinia and other bacteria. Raw poultry frequently contains Campylobacter and can also contain Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens and other bacteria. It’s important to know that cooking to the proper temperature kills Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli. Rinsing contaminated items, such as lettuce or mushrooms, can remove pesticide residue and some germs, but it won’t kill bacteria such as Salmonella, Listeria or E. coli.
- Chill: Refrigerate perishable food within two hours if it’s out at room temperature. Refrigerate it within one hour if the food is out in temperatures above 90 degree, at a picnic, for example. In addition, frozen foods should be thawed in the refrigerator, not at room temperature.
- Stay informed: Finally, keep up with the latest food recalls. Here’s our consumer guide on ways to protect you and your family.
RECOMMENDATIONS TO IMPROVE RECALL AWARENESS
When we have hundreds and sometimes thousands of people getting sick every year from a particular contaminated food item, we should consider what else can be done to prevent it. We need to stop contaminated food from being sold, identify it more quickly when something does slip through and warn consumers when contaminated food makes it to market.
The easiest part of this should be warning consumers. The CDC says many illnesses occur long after recalls have been announced – sometimes weeks or months later – because people have eaten previously recalled food. There’s no single method of reaching everyone who may have purchased a particular product. Multiple methods of outreach would be better.
Here are some steps that would help:
- The FDA and USDA should develop a way for consumers and businesses to receive direct email, text or phone alerts of all Class I recalls and any allergens of concern.Products with undeclared allergens such as peanuts or milk make up more than 40 percent of recalls, but only an estimated 6% of the population has some kind of food allergy and would care significantly about those recalls.The FDA and USDA combined post an average of a half-dozen recalls a week. Many aren’t a huge risk to most people.Yes, you can sign up for email alerts – for every food recall. If someone were to get email or text alerts about every single recall – one almost every day on average – they’d suffer from what experts call “recall fatigue.” Many consumers would become numb and stop noticing or would get annoyed by all of the alerts and stop reading them.
- Industry leaders in the past have recommended that the FDA and USDA revamp their alert processes so people could opt to be notified about specific categories of recalls and alerts, instead of all of them. Maybe someone wants to be alerted only to foods recalled because of undisclosed nuts or wheat. Maybe someone wants to be notified only about issues with pet food. If companies like eBay can notify us only about products from saved searches, surely the government can too.
- A separate idea that we probably will see at some point in the future: Food producers could leverage technology so consumers can easily learn whether an item in their home has been recalled.
Currently, consumers can use an app to scan the barcodes for many food items and find out their nutritional value. What if every food product contained a QR code, for example, so you could scan it with your phone and find out about any recalls in real time.
This would also help address the issue of recalled foods at food pantries and soup kitchens. They don’t have the computer systems a grocery store has, so volunteers have to go through products by hand to find recalled items.
- Companies need to do more. Currently, government regulators require only two notifications when there’s a food recall: a posting on the FDA’s recall website, and a news release issued by the company that’s conducting the recall.
Companies conducting a recall should be required to try to reach out to consumers directly. Many food manufacturers sure spend a lot of money to market their products to us. How about if they spend the same amount that was spent to sell us the product to inform us that it’s been recalled?In addition, retailers should offer shoppers a way to be contacted by phone, text or email in case of recalls involving items they bought, whether that’s through a loyalty card or some other system. Retailers are inconsistent here.In a survey we conducted last year, we found that only half of the 50 largest U.S. grocery and convenience chains we talked with offered a way for customers to be contacted directly about recalls.Some retailers post recall notices in their stores. Perhaps in the section where the item was sold. Maybe at the customer service counter. For big recalls, some post a notice at the front entrance.
- But those don’t help people who aren’t regular shoppers, or don’t visit that section of the store the next time they shop, or order their groceries online and pick them up curbside or get them delivered. Grocers should ask themselves whether posting notices of Class I recalls would reach some people who otherwise wouldn’t find out.A multi-layered approach to communication can help: traditional media, social media, websites, loyalty cards, automated phone calls, emails and/or in-store notifications.
- The FDA needs to implement the part of the Food Safety Modernization Act that requires retailers to post recall notices in a consistent manner.
- Consumers should do more to be informed, particularly if their home includes people with severe food allergies, or young children, senior citizens, pregnant women or others who are medically more vulnerable to foodborne illness. Consumers should be proactive to make sure they have multiple ways to find out about recalls through their grocers, free apps, government alerts and news alerts.
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Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.