September 30, 2021

When a Recall Isn’t Really a Recall

Dr. Jennifer McEntire

By Dr. Jennifer McEntire, Senior Vice President, Food Safety and Technology United Fresh Produce Association

When a food safety event happens, companies or public health agencies like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) need to protect consumers by providing information. The language they use can be confusing to the average person. Most people don’t know the difference between an outbreak, a recall and a food safety alert.

An outbreak occurs when two or more people get sick from the same source, or pathogen. A pathogen is the organism, or germ, that is responsible for the sickness.

When people get sick the hope is that they get medical attention. If they do seek help and the  doctors suspect a foodborne illness, they will collect samples to identify the pathogen that caused the person to become sick. This information will be filed in a national database that is continually monitored for trends.

These days, pathogens can be identified through something called whole genome sequencing. Similar to ‘23 and Me’ that uses DNA to identify people in the same family, whole genome sequencing shows the genetic relatedness of pathogens. If pathogens from multiple people are closely genetically related within a short timeframe, it’s likely they are from the same source, and that there might be an outbreak.

It’s important to know that not all outbreaks are related to food. Some outbreaks can be caused by contaminated water in a lake or water park, or through petting zoos. So, when an outbreak is identified, federal, state and local agencies launch an investigation which begins by interviewing those affected in an effort to determine what common activity they engaged in or what foods they ate.

If a source is narrowed down to a specific food and, furthermore a specific brand, lot number, or date of production, that’s when the company involved will issue a recall. Recalls that result from outbreaks are rare. The vast majority of recalls have nothing to do with illness. Most recalls occur because a product might cause an illness or harm to people. Perhaps a product in a warehouse was tested and found to contain a pathogen, or a consumer noticed that it contained an undeclared allergen. Or there may be an ingredient that is missing from the product’s label. If any of this same product has already entered marketing channels, it must be recalled. Even though people are not sick yet, they might be if they eat this product.

Whether the product is linked to illness, or hasn’t been linked to illness but has a food safety violation, companies will issue what’s sometimes referred to as a voluntary recall. This terminology can be misleading because it is not actually voluntary. Companies are obligated to recall products that have the potential to cause harm or are otherwise illegal because they are contaminated or not properly branded and labeled. In the unlikely event that a company refuses, FDA can recall the company’s product. But as you’ll see below, that’s not what happened with romaine a few years ago.

If there is a best possible scenario in a foodborne illness outbreak, it’s when the food is identified as coming from a single company who can issue a recall that identifies a specific brand, lot number and/or date listed on the packaging. In this case, stores remove it from their shelves and consumers can be warned not to eat that product.

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to limit the suspected product to one company — or even to link it to a company at all. That’s when government health agencies will step in and notify the public to avoid an entire food or product category.  An example of that was an outbreak in 2018 when consumers were told not to eat romaine. In these cases, the CDC issues what it calls a food safety alert while the FDA’s terminology for this same thing is a consumer advisory. It was clear that romaine was causing illness, but the government wasn’t able to narrow it down to a single brand or a single grower.

These types of broad alerts from public health agencies, while sometimes necessary, are extremely damaging to an entire product category and they come with substantial costs.

Please know that even when the government advises consumers to avoid an entire product category, the vast majority of that product is perfectly safe to eat. But, since the safe food often cannot be distinguished from the contaminated food, government agencies err on the side of caution and they advise consumers not to consume any of that particular food. Consumers should always follow this advice.

In these situations, a great amount of food is wasted because it must be destroyed. Additionally, it can cause people to become afraid to eat that product in the future. This can be extremely damaging to consumers and farmers alike. The average American already doesn’t consume enough produce. In fact, according to the CDC just one out of every ten American adults eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables per day.

Farmers are working hard to prevent these outbreaks. What I really want to stress is that although foodborne illness outbreaks do happen and they often get a lot of media attention, when compared to the number of servings of foods Americans eat every day, it is truly amazing how safe our food supply is.



You can watch a recording of the Facebook live event featuring Dr. McEntire here.

You can also view and download the glossary of terms commonly used in a food safety event here.